Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn came to the attention of most cinema-goers when he directed the ultraviolent getaway thriller Drive, which has since developed a huge cult following. This relatively mainstream effort provided the modern-day auteur the opportunity to delve into art-house territory and reach a wide audience simultaneously. His controversial, yet vibrant visions are taken to the extreme in latest work The Neon Demon, an entrancing horror film set around the LA fashion industry. The plot follows young and aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) who, with no family to support her, moves to the big city to follow her dream. At an amateur photo shoot, she befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) who in turn introduces her to professional models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). The old-hands fear that they’ll soon be overlooked by Jesse’s natural beauty and vitality, but begrudgingly welcome her to their obsessive cut-throat world.
With his trademark neon-tinged visuals and a signature synth score from frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez, Refn shows no signs off veering from his favoured style and presents his most self-indulgent, and possibly his most dark and disturbing piece to date. Studied closely and creepily through the male gaze technique, Jesse and her unblemished innocence are thrust into a warped fairytale of necrophilia and cannibalism, like Alice in Winding Refn-land. The dialogue is quite stilted and minimalistic, moving the story along rather slowly, but the inventive and entertaining surrealist interludes do enough so distract from the substandard script for the most part.
Nobody in the cast would have had an abundance of lines to learn but despite having little to say, the performances gel well with Refn’s aesthetically focussed approach to cinema. Elle Fanning brings a youthful naivety which juxtaposes nicely with the depravity of the subject matter, while Malone, Heathcote and Lee circle around her like uber-glamorous witches of Macbeth, poisoning her soul with their tainted tales of seductive lipstick and plastic surgery. Experienced turns come from Christina Hendricks, appearing as a skewed version of her feisty Mad Men persona, and Keanu Reeves, who plays a menacing, sadistic motel owner with alarming ease and attitude.
During a scene where characters converse about the fashion industry at a seedy bar, an egotistical fashion designer boldly claims that ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’. Is this a hidden lash-out at Refn’s critics who say he delivers style over substance? In cinema terms, the way the film looks isn’t necessarily the key factor, but if Nicolas Winding Refn continues to create movies as gloriously pleasing to the eye as The Neon Demon, then he will forever remain in vogue.