Hypnosis is some scary shit. Not because you could potentially do something stupid in front of a crowd while being hypnotized — we've all been drunk. No, the fact that a stranger has the ability to control your consciousness is … frightening. Nicholas Winding Refn taps into that fear in The Neon Demon.
Falling into a trance and getting lost in a world full of beauty sounds like an amazing time, but NWR manages to fill it with a restless unease. He takes us into the Los Angeles modeling world where humans become visual playthings, tools of celluloid expression.
Elle Fanning (Super 8) is Jesse, a naive 16-year-old whose first instruction is to lie about her age. As an assumed 19-year-old, she rises through the ranks, stepping over multitudes of leggy goddesses in doing so. A couple of veteran models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) take notice and proceed to make young Jesse's life hellish, that is if she doesn't beat them to it. Ruby (Jena Malone) guides her through the maze of pulchritude. But is she actually being nice or is she just waiting her turn?
Personal aside and Cliff Martinez love note: Every interaction, every scene, every baited moment is punctuated by Cliff Martinez. Everything this man touches is made better. His score is perfect. Martinez is art. With that out of the way …
Co-opting tired quotes is permafrost. They're not your words, don't say them. Don't make a film that leads audiences to even think them! Unless you're Nicholas Winding Refn, apparently. "Beauty isn't everything, it is the only thing." He takes Vincent Lombardi's line to the nth degree. Winning is replaced by beauty, but the quote is made visceral by the end of the movie. It's hardly going to make you jump, but focus long enough and you'll notice your pulse is elevated throughout the entire film.
The Neon Demon is not for everyone. Its pacing will try your patience. Some scenes that are purposefully masturbatory are taken to their bluest of balls then end with a whimper. This isn't a critique as much as it is a notification. NWR is deliberate with each second of film. If a scene felt too long, it was his goal. He doesn't want you to relax into your seat.
He probably doesn't want you getting up and booing either, but that’s what happened during the Cannes premiere of the movie. Boos rang with ferocity unseen at any other movie this year. The disdain was misdirected. While the story is not nearly as engaging as NWR's Drive, it will undoubtedly touch a nerve.
Refn loves Fanning. She joins Saiorse Ronan and a select few others whose directors have let dictate what we see on screen. There is chemistry between Fanning and the frame that makes you want her in every single shot. She would be, too, if not for NWR's love of LA. I've never been to the City of Angels, but I have seen Drive and The Neon Demon.
On par with Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, The Neon Demon will freak you out.