Film Review – The Neon Demon (2016)

16-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) breezes into The City of Angels and brings out the devil in her catty counterparts. Choked with envy and blinded by indignation the established elite will cross any boundary’s and break any taboo’s to protect their place mats at the top table.

This toxic jealousy soon oozes out through the ruptures in the runway and provides the perfect agar plate for cultivating sexual assault, cannibalism, and desperate acts of lesbian necrophilia.

Forced through the ersatz filter of Refn’s colour blindness and augmented by his childhood love of neon this film is first and foremost a sparkling spectacle of acid-trip theatrics. But is it any deeper than a noble gas swirl in a downtown rain puddle ?

While it’s relatively plotless The Neon Demon is a powerhouse of motifs and metaphors. The opening shot shows Jesse drenched in  blood from her own throat during an early photo shoot. Later, when she becomes speared on the sleazy talons of high profile photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), the claret is traded for a gush of gold paint to reflect her rising star status.

As the neurosis unfurls these juxtapositions and correlations, both oral and ocular, become more elaborate and meaningful as they pile up on top of each other. There will be many verbal wranglings over the significance of the cougar that goes on the ransack in Pasadena.

The acting may well be viewed as a masterclass in controlled interpretation or as an exercise in frost-crippled grandstanding. Either way, it is highly entertaining and every performance throws up a healthy haul of hilarity – intentional or otherwise.

Fanning (Super 8) is radiantly mischevious in the lead, clearly revelling in Refn’s freeform style, illustrated by an improvised mirror kiss and the chaos of the brutal last act. Keanu Reeves is revelatory as Motel managing douche- nozzle Hank and puts in his best shift for years.

Drive collaborator Cliff Martinez delivers an astonishingly creative soundtrack that germinates in the soil of early 70’s melodrama and amplifies into the pungent blooms of full-blooded exploitation horror. As the boo’s still echoed around the screening rooms of Cannes Martinez quietly walked off with the best composer award.

The Neon Demon might just be the most blissfully inappropriate date movie since Antichrist and there is some truly perverse moral iniquity to enjoy. Rumour has it that instead of a shouting action Refn howled ” Violence motherfuckers !!” each time he wanted to set the cameras rolling.

One extreme scene, in particular, takes The Neon Demon way Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and has caused the  Daily Mail to remove its protective hood and pound long and hard on its panic button. This, in turn, had Refn furiously fist pumping his own ego at a job well done.

In truth, the set piece in question is contextually accurate in terms of emotional provenance and heavily reinforces the narrative with pathos. Furthermore, it is cogently cushioned by the feminist ethos that cocoons Refn’s filmography. Much more troubling is a sequence involving a hunting knife that will leave a fair few with fingers over their eyes.

There is no doubt that The Neon Demon is cinematic trash. However, it’s a shimmering junk pile, stacked fuck-high with discarded chandeliers fused from the shards of broken dreams, then bombarded by the laser beams of rejection. And it’s heart freezingly gorgeous.

Any flick that attempts to project such prisms of pure glamour onto the camouflaged canvas of aesthetic obsession is bound to be at least a little grandiloquent. At times it plays like a pretentious Hard R, Giallo themed, commercial for Gucci, at others, a succinctly shocking anatomisation of the green eyed monster and at others still, the gelid bitch-child of Showgirls and Mulholland Drive.

For some Refn’s rascal of a film will provide amaranthine satirical nourishment and substantial subversive snickering. For many others, it will just be another exasperating case of the Emperor’s new clothes commandeering the catwalk.

Shot in chronological order this iridescent pantomime uses “diamond among a sea of glass” Jesse to expose how Los Angeles can mutate both soul and psyche and seems to advocate the city itself as the titular Demon.

[rating=5]| Bradley Hadcroft

Drama, Horror, Thriller | USA, 2016 |18 | 1h 58min | Icon Film Distribution | Cinemas 8th July 2016 (UK) | Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn | Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone.