The ‘Neon Demon’ Sees Nicholas Winding Refn At A Crossroads Between High Art And Schlock

In Neon Demon, director Nicolas Winding Refn is more self assured than ever. The guy who was once experimenting is now a fully-formed artiste unabashedly striving for a masterpiece. While he seems confident in his ability to have an artistic vision and execute it, he still seems resistant to the idea that he may have matured. He could be gorgeous and ethereal and lyrical and subtle (all those great pull quote words) if he wanted, and Neon Demon often is. But Refn refuses to let go of his idea of himself as provocateur. He seems to want simultaneously to be cooed over by snooty gallery folk while flipping them the bird with both hands and telling them to eat sh*t.

Before my screening, a guy who runs a local midnight movies program came out to tell us that Neon Demon represented Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive, Only God Forgives) at a turning point in his career, a culmination of him finally “pushing himself out of the world of ‘cohesive cinema.'”

The collective groan was palpable at this point, because usually when a director (or some pompous guy with a microphone who talks before screenings) tells you that he couldn’t be bound by traditional plotting, it means that he wanted people to see him as an artist without having to go through the usual trouble of, say, coming up with a consistent vision first. Throw it at the screen and let the audience figure it out! Be mysterious! Artists do, audiences interpret! That’s how that usually goes.

Neon Demon isn’t that. While it is light on plotting in the traditional sense, and much more driven by cool visuals, it also doesn’t flail around wildly trying to be provocative (as, say, David Lynch can do on occasion). Neon Demon isn’t traditional, but it also isn’t needy, and it’s nearly always on brand. Refn, who may have gotten that neediness out of his system when he prominently featured his own name in the opening and closing credits roughly 17 billion times, including a fancy “NWR” underneath the title card (a monogrammed movie!), feels more naturalistic in his oddballness, less curated. His approach feels less “Well, aren’t I deliciously strange?” and more a Hansel-esque “Who cares? It’s only movies.”

His obsession this time around is beauty. Specifically, ephemeral nature of; systems fed by. His muse is Elle Fanning, who turned 18 in April, in the kind of role I never imagined she had in her (more because she was a child than because I was underestimating her, but still). Perfectly befitting his theme, Refn captures her in that fleeting transitional moment, when she can look entirely childlike in one scene and every bit a sexual being in the next. It’s a magic trick, based on lighting, mood, and styling, which highlights both the way beauty can be manufactured and desire manipulated, and draws attention to Refn’s ability to manufacture and manipulate them. It’s a neat trick, and Refn is nothing if not a clever craftsman.

She plays the proverbial model who’s just arrived in L.A., and Neon Demon sells Fanning’s “Jesse” as the perfect natural beauty, “a diamond in a pile of glass,” as a photographer puts it. With her flaxen hair, Norman Rockwell nose, and perhaps even more importantly, her air of unworldliness, she’s a sponge for all the world’s adoration, lust, and envy. We’ve seen that before, but the interesting twist here is, Jesse seems to enjoy it. Unlike most ingenues, she has agency.

And that’s, well… pretty much the entire movie.

Everyone Jesse meets wants to be her, f*ck her, kill her, or all three. The players include her benevolent but obsessive make-up artist friend played by Jena Malone, a pair of openly jealous b*tchy frenemies (Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee, both ridiculously thin and blonde with preposterously large blue eyes), her sweet-hearted meathead boyfriend (Karl Glusman), and the creepy manager of the seedy motel where she lives, played wonderfully by Keanu Reeves, who’s so well-cast against type that his acting work is practically done before he opens his mouth. It’s really fun to watch Keanu Reeves act like a weird perv for some reason.

The reason Refn can make a movie that doesn’t have much plot work is partly that it’s so stylishly done — a combination of the cinematography from Natasha Braier (The Rover), production design by the guy who did Spring Breakers (Elliott Hofstetter), and music by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez — and partly that when Refn does a sequence where “nothing much happens,” there’s still a wit to it that most art movies lack. He’s not trying to be “meaningful” in some abstract sense, he mostly just seems to be trying to entertain himself.

Like Darren Aronofsky in Black Swan, Refn is attempting something with a high degree of difficulty here, using a story set in an insular, esoteric world of sheltered elites (in this case, the lurid, bi-curious, dog-eat-dog world of high fashion, in Black Swan‘s case, the lurid, bi-curious, dog-eat-dog world of ballet) that .0000001 percent of the world has ever experienced, and still have it read as a kind of universal comment on the nature of youth and beauty. He mostly pulls it off, and I was engrossed for about the first three fourths of the movie. Things do eventually start to stagnate a bit, and you can feel Refn flailing around for ways to thumb us in the eye when he gets bored of his witty, oddball riff on cruel beauty. Artist or provocateur? I don’t necessarily demand he be one or the other, but the transition is a little creaky.

As a staunch f*ck-you enthusiast, I do appreciate the impulse to thumb figurative eyeballs, especially when it comes as it does in Neon Demon in the form of puke and corpse-f*cking. But the imagery is… how to put it without spoiling anything… more cute than shocking, and delivered in such a way that it feels to me more like a shrug than a crescendo. Which isn’t to say that it’s a copout or anything, just more of a goofy little riff to say “I’m leaving the stage now” than a triumphant power chord strummed from atop the monitor.  You’re left with the feeling that it’s charmingly goofy, but not entirely satisfying, much like my lovemaking.

(I think if anyone would approve of me ending an earnest review with a throwaway middle school sex joke it’d be Nicolas Refn.)

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.