Director and writer Nicholas Winding Refn teams up with screenplay writers, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, cinematographer, Natasha Braier and composer, Cliff Martinez (of Drive (2011) and Fifth Element (1997) fame). Together they create the visually stunning study that is The Neon Demon. Our plot centers on an innocent modeling hopeful, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has had no choice but to try to make her way in the cutthroat world of L.A. modeling.
Accompanied by amateur photographs taken by boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), Jesse approaches a large modeling agency where Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks) sees her potential and promptly thrusts her into the world of modeling. Jesse learns early on that lying comes with the territory. Jesse quickly gains a reputation for herself and begrudgingly acquires some notable admirers, one of whom is a make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her seasoned model entourage, Gigi (Bella Heathcole) and Sara (Abbey Lee). Jesse is consumed by the addictive highs of the twisted and superficial industry and soon learns that youthful innocence may get you the ‘gig’ – but what is the real price of admission? It might just be everything she was, is and could be.
Having allowed the critic and public consensus to simmer down a little, I decided to trade my world for Refn’s world once again. This time for The Neon Demon (it took very little persuading).
Any fan of Refn will tell you the same two things about his movies, or I do, at the very least: they’re visually exquisite and sonically palpable (predictably, I want the soundtrack to this one too). It will therefore come as no surprise that The Neon Demon delivers on both fronts; you can expect the same minute attention to framing/shot/set-design/costume/make-up and compelling build in tension and at times, the shocking relief/plot-twists that every movie-goer craves.
The Neon Demon is a portrayal of the darker side of the modeling industry, focusing primarily on the all-consuming nature of the industry through the eyes of Jesse. And yet, I left wanting more of the themes Refn touches on; more depth to the intricacies and convoluted seedy-beast he exposes us to. Instead, The Neon Demon hooks you in with the world: the clean, cutthroat modeling agencies, the secret sleek electronic/industrial clubs and the shocking day-to-day expectations, standards and rejection and leaves you a little numb. By the end, I felt some themes were under-developed and under-appreciated; considered only as superficially as the very industry it was portraying. This was a little unfulfilling and I’m still undecided whether this choice was extremely clever on the creators’ part, or not.
I’ve seen a lot of critique regarding the themes of the movie, that there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. While the themes aren’t completely unique, I’m a firm believer that as long as a storyteller has something to say and contribute to the discussion, then the art is always worth creating. I don’t believe lack of uniqueness to be a valid critique of The Neon Demon; such critique should be saved for the realms of the patent court. Refn certainly had something to say, but were some ideas underdeveloped? Personally, I think so, yes. One particular scene, that I won’t spoil, was shocking and indicated a dark turn in a characters development but it didn’t really forward the plot for me. If anything, it came across as a little indulgent and detracted from the significance of the previous scene that aptly developed the character’s darker turn.
I’m still convinced Mr. Refn would make a fantastic suspense thriller/horror movie…but I’ll leave the reasons as to why to the scenes of The Neon Demon.