Written by Jacob Chimilar (@sweetlows)
I first heard of Nicolas Winding Refn (who goes by the moniker of NWR in the titles at one point) as most people did through his critically acclaimed, Ryan Gosling fronted film Drive. I loved that movie. Just before seeing this one I went and watched Only God Forgives to get me in the mood for something that would be off beat and symbolic. I think it is a film that needs you to understand the metaphors within it to really "get it", I was pretty lost until I did some research and I was able to appreciate more. The Neon Demon is a bit more straight forward in its message and is one that is still far from a crowd pleaser. It's dark, twisted with gorgeous neon infused cinematography by Natasha Braier, editing by Matthew Newman and pulsating, bone rattling music from a now frequent NWR collaborator, Cliff Martinez. Refn gets art house style down and treats his characters as deranged pawns to shuffle and deal out cruel and unusual punishment to. Elle Fanning and Jenna Malone are both excellent in the film and it makes the twists and turns, dreams and irregularities that much more heightened thanks to their performances. It's a deep and seedy underworld that these characters inhabit and they have been broken by a system that rewards vanity and casts the rest aside in a kill or be killed industry. It pushes buttons many people will find disturbing but I found it to be within the realm of possibility for these characters even as more extreme events unfold.
The film follows a 16 year old girl named Jessie played by Elle Fanning who goes into a modeling agency and is told that she has that "thing", that some girls have, that natural youth and beauty all women crave. She quickly rises to the top ahead of the girls that have fought tooth and nail to get where they are, going through what they deem necessary plastic surgery to get that look. It's an age old story of those who incite change over those who wish to keep things the same to hold onto their power and status by any means.
I despise movies that try to be weird just for the sake of being weird, this movie at least for me does not do that. It earns its strange other worldly nature because modeling is not by any means reality, it like any job, it has its own rules and structures people not in the know would find strange, Refn takes the worst parts of modeling and adds edge and injects style to create a beautiful mess of a movie. I think it will be worth rewatching at least once for sure. It does take its sweet time going places and can really milk the weird and it wore on me towards the end but for the most part it kept me engaged with its story and characters as out there as they may be and crafted something different, original and completely immersive. If you want to get weird, Refn has you covered.
I think people, women especially, may find it's treatment of women to be offensive and that's totally ok, but I would argue that given the right mind set, this movie is not supposed to be grounded in any kind of reality, it is more of a fairy tale and the characters, best portrayed by women simply due to their more universally accepted ability to be sexualized and well, demonized (as unfortunate as that may be) helps the viewer believe in the deranged qualities Refn is aiming for. It's not for everyone, but I don't think he set out to make a movie that is degrading to women, just one that, without them, wouldn't have been as vicious.
It's not a masterpiece but takes the topic of the horrors of the model industry and turns it into, well, a horror movie. The closest comparison I can make would be Black Swan. If those kinds of movies are ones you enjoy then I can almost guarantee you will at least find something to love in this twisted creep fest.
If you don't mind some spoilers, the people over at Screen Rant wrote an interesting article about their interpretation of The Neon Demon that is worth a read