My history with director Nicolas Winding Refn's films is checkered at best. I like Drive just fine, but I don't see how it's a contender for one of the best films of the decade the way some people do. Bronson is pretty well-liked too, but I think it's a messy slog. And almost everybody hated Only God Forgives, yet I somehow hated it even more. Maybe I'd feel differently about the Pusher trilogy and Valhalla Rising if I had seen those, but Refn always struck me as an enfant terrible filmmaker in the vein of Lars von Trier, except without any good movies under his belt.
His latest, The Neon Demon, changes that completely. This time around, Refn applies his sleek style to the fashion world, a milieu that ends up being surprisingly well-suited for the kind of violent fantasia we're used to from him. In the middle of it all is fresh-faced protagonist Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who moves to L.A. to take a shot at the industry. Forced to live in a ratty hotel and lie about her age -- 19, three years older than she actually is -- Jesse quickly finds opportunities after photographers and agencies are drawn to her ethereal nature. For every bit of adulation she gets from those who hire her, however, she gets just as much animosity from other models in the industry, who see her fast rise as a threat to their livelihood. Refn depicts this world as one of predators and prey, literalized at one point when Jesse comes home to find a cougar has somehow gotten into her hotel room. Everyone knows that Jesse has "it," and even though they might not be able to put a finger on what it is, they're willing to consume her to attain it.
Usually, stories don't work when they're constantly telling the audience something about the character, but they can't back up those claims. If everyone is always referring to a character as brilliant or magical, you need to show evidence that will make the viewer believe it. I'm not quite sure that Elle Fanning reaches the level of allure that the film requires her to, but she comes awfully close. Fanning has already established herself as a formidable actress, but she finds another level here, delivering a performance that's so internal and full of quiet power. The film works as well as it does because Jesse is almost as mesmerizing as everyone around her thinks she is.
Refn's aesthetics go a long way as well. No matter how much everything else has failed him in the past, his films have always looked and sounded incredible, and fittingly, The Neon Demon looks and sounds better than anything he's ever done. Right from the opening title card, we're given an amazing collection of synth smears from Cliff Martinez, matching perfectly with Natasha Braier's chilly, but colorful cinematography. On a pure sensory level, this is one of the finest experiences of the year. Refn provides a thrilling tug-of-war between icy moments of elongated silence and bludgeoning bits of sound and texture. Like the industry it depicts, Neon Demon is a beautiful, queasy nightmare.
So many reviews have latched on to the points the film makes about the cannibalistic nature of showbiz and the fashion industry. And yes, that material is delivered with a pretty heavy hand. But peel back a layer and you'll see that Refn is trying to say something more subtle and skillful about what it's like to go about every day as a woman, and a beautiful one at that. Everyone wants Jesse, from the male photographers attempting to capture her essence to other women who appear to be helping her at first. And at some point, the pursuit always becomes aggressive and violent. It's exhausting to watch Jesse have to rebuff so many unwanted advances. The film takes its point a step further by showing how it's even more damaging for a woman to be beautiful and confident about it, because that just inspires more anger and desire from others. Once Jesse truly acknowledges her star quality, that's when the carnage really begins.
All of these themes come together in a dreamy splash of violence, but if there's one disappointment it's that the film hammers all of its ideas home to the point of redundancy. The Neon Demon arrives at a perfect ending, but then repeats itself for another 10 to 15 minutes that don't work as well as its frenzied, feverish climax. Still, those excesses aren't enough to take away from the unique satisfaction the movie's cumulative experience provides. Nicolas Winding Refn might go a step too far, but then again, he's also the only filmmaker willing to take the 10 steps before.