Only God Forgives was a watershed moment in Nicolas Winding Refn’s career. The indulgent, slow cinema-addled, nearly universally polarizing ode to revenge and bruised masculinity furthered Refn’s reputation as a provocateur—but it also cemented his relationship to moral authority.
For all of Refn’s concessions to an underbelly of society whether through vicious misogynists or intoxicating murals of bloodshed, he’s at heart a centrist, believing foremost in a cosmic balance.
Impenetrable (and ineffable) forces propel Refn’s films whether it’s elemental criminals or symbolic angels of death, and Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, follows in this same numbing devotion to the power of cinema’s unknown.
In The Neon Demon, 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) isn’t just groomed to be the next “It” Girl in the fashion world—she was born that way. But she’s surrounded by people who suck on young blood: predatory photographers (Desmond Harrington), megalomaniacal fashion designers (Alessandro Nivola) and a pair of fading models (Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcoate), whose ambitions are only matched by their bloodlust.
The film makes few illusions about its intentions, gleefully foreshadowing its inclinations toward future horror with winking lines about “redrum lipstick” and extended monologues about body modification.
As Jesse, Fanning is perfectly cast, tilting her cherubic presence just enough to come off arrogant rather than innocent, and playing up her innocuous presence into something existential. And coming off her role in last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Abbey Lee is diabolical as Sarah, a take-no-prisoners model who has little warmth for the next “It” Girl, let alone her best friends.
Innocence has replaced masculinity as Refn’s muse, but The Neon Demon nonetheless feels wholly divided between its first half of corrupted innocence, and its Grand Guignol second half that plays like last year’s The Duke of Burgundy without the ballast of the erotic or the romantic.
In this second phase of his career, Refn’s characters wrestle against oncoming forces. And his settings have become living, breathing organisms, gurgling at the touch of humans, and becoming outward extensions of his characters’ persistent anxieties.
Refn’s visual style remains singular. His sensibility has evolved from the grimy epics of the Pusher trilogy and Bronson into coexisting shards of operatic beauty and thudding violence. He’s not unlike a cross between Bernardo Bertolucci, Harmony Korine and a Giorgio Armani ad. Regular collaborator Cliff Martinez’s score stings and sparkles in all the right ways as well, with floating arpeggios and trembling vocoder vamps.
With new cinematographer Natasha Braier, The Neon Demon has a wondrous eye for slow-motion fetishism, especially in an early scene that renders motion blur into a form of stop-motion, and a late scene low-angle with Fanning on a diving board that feels nearly otherworldly.
But for every scene that indulges in trippy montages of Fanning worshipping at the altar of her own body and surrendering to narcissism, the film is punctuated with Refn’s familiar elements of transgression. This time, the list of shocks includes enduring sapphic overtones, necrophilia and demonic ids.
Refn’s fascination with the destabilization of the hero’s journey through twisting an angelic presence like Elle Fanning into a manifestation of absolute power remains refreshing. But The Neon Demon lacks focus. At nearly two hours, the film refuses to decide whether it wants to be a maximalist descent into chaos or facile commentary on the fashion industry.
That’s not helped by the script, which is co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, but feels stolidly in the vein of Refn’s previous scripts. Refn’s ear for affected but compelling conversation has dulled in the past years. And even as aggressively sinister lines like “you have such beautiful skin” bring a deliciously trashy glow to the proceedings, there are just as many lines that feel diametrically engineered as moments of authenticity and vacuousness.
Much of The Neon Demon teeters between these emotional tenors, and as such, the whole film feels unusually flat. For all of Only God Forgives’ faults, it still managed a chilling pitch with its Lynchian family dynamics and fluttering violence. This film is mostly just inert, even as individual compositions—like a Cat People-esque shot with Ruby (Jena Malone) howling at the moon—are stunning in their own right.
And by its conclusion, The Neon Demon feels particularly disdainful of its audience, limping to the end with rote sadism and gross-out violence in the stead of a fully formed narrative.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcoate, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Release Date: June 24, 2016