This is a weird one.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn has rightfully earned a reputation of making films that toy with genre conventions and audience expectations. Though DRIVE is arguably his most easily digestible film, VALHALLA RISING was the first time I loved his work. Brutality and visually striking tableaus have connected his work, and THE NEON DEMON continues this thread.
The plot to THE NEON DEMON is not nearly as important as its visual language, but I’ll take a stab at it all the same. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young beauty who moves to Los Angeles to make it as a model. She is living in a crummy motel in Pasadena, with a skeevy innkeeper (Keanu Reeves) keeping a close eye on her. After befriending a makeup artist (Jena Malone) at one shoot, she gets introduced to other models and taken into their competitive world of jealousy and backstabbing. Predictably, shit goes down.
This plot is loose and moves like molasses, but that speed gives the camera plenty of time to devour Refn’s lush sets and incredible visual language. It is clear that he is communicating with the audience on multiple, non-verbal levels (music, lighting, heck-even makeup). The performances completely blew me away too. Though Jena Malone steals every scene she is in, Fanning perfectly plays the part of the innocent ingénue who may or may not be playing everyone around her like a fiddle.
And in this is the brilliance of THE NEON DEMON. Refn takes the typical scenario of the pure virgin moving to the dark, gritty city, and plays with it. Is Jesse innocent or festering below the surface? Or does Refn want us to think she is really one or the other only to yank the rug from beneath our feet? With the over-the-top gorgeous women and the preposterously clichéd “Hollywood” we are clearly being constantly lead astray by both our own expectations and by the film anticipating these expectations. It subverts its own subversions and yet still upholds its own clichés. This is both confusing and exhilarating at the same time, as it is so rare to find a truly original film in wide-release nowadays. Guessing the film’s next move is useless, as you will be wrong, but imagining the escalating debauchery is a rush.
The film does get brutal and it does get bloody, but never really veers into horror territory. However, if you define horror as general fuck-up-ed-ness, then this would easily nestle into your designation of the genre.
THE NEON DEMON is not easy to watch or easy to follow, but its dark humor and even darker opinion of humanity makes it one of the best films of 2016.