Nicholas Winding Refn is frustrating in some ways because he knows he’s good. Although I’ve not seen Pusher, I’ve managed to catch the rest of his body of work and can appreciate him more for his visuals and atmosphere than storytelling. Only God Forgives was pretty divisive amongst my friends, but I still got a real kick out of the imagery and bathed in it through its run time with nary a peep. Boring? Not when there’s so much to take in, even if the depth is paddling-pool shallow.
His ego is stamped all over the title cards of The Neon Demon, even as other cast members flash up against the metallic stone surface. The initials NWR, right there, at the bottom of the screen. Deserved? As a stylist, yes, along with Natasha Braier whose rich cinematography gives the movie an almost comic-book feel, alongside production designer Elliott Hostetter and costume designer Erin Benach.
The influence of David Lynch in a glitzy LA with corruption lurking in its dermis is palpable, as are the nods to David Cronenberg’s gushing body horror and Dario Argento’s lurid feminine cult hit Suspiria. There’s even a touch of Under The Skin. As such it doesn’t quite feel entirely like a Winding Refn feature, as he adapts lizard-like to ape his inspirations much in the same way as lead character Jesse, an deeply unnerving Elle Fanning, conforms and controls the world around her. A young model recently arrived in town, while her innocent beauty and personality initially beguile, her inner egotism and narcissism bubbles to the surface revealing her true near-sociopathic nature as time goes by. Elle’s subtle facial mannerisms say more about her inner demons than the light script. It’s a film where the visuals are often more important than the words.
Jena Malone is sharply entertaining as the make-up artist that takes Elle under her wing while falling for her spell, and her two friends, the alien yet beautiful double-bill of Bella Heathcoate and Abby Lee, provide the benchmark for Jesse’s career ambitions. Abby Lee in particular comes across as a creature from another planet, wrapped up in jealousy, towering over the rest of the cast and comes replete with a coda moment worthy of the best horrors. Jena also manages to ride out an obscene segment that rides between comic and disturbing. Anyone who’s a fan of black, black humour will get off on The Neon Demon the further it rides into gloriously Grand Guignol absurdity.
Keanu Reeves also gets a turn that’s completely unexpected of him. The man doesn’t age, but he’s certainly maturing.
And, seeing as this is a review — did I like it? I came away feeling that while as a stylistic horror it certainly works, and I definitely plan to revisit it, there’s an inescapable feeling that The Neon Demon could’ve been something more. If it had reached a little higher beyond its core inspirations, if there was a touch more depth beyond repeating the corrupt Hollywood cliché, then it certainly would’ve been one of my fave films of the year. As such; a beautiful horror movie, but one that doesn’t quite earn its star.