Review: ‘The Neon Demon’ offers sleek and sexy scares with a satirical twist

There are, in every generation of filmmakers, certain archetypes that repeat themselves over and over. For example, every generation has its playful prankster, the talented visual artists who are delighted by their own ability to take beautiful pictures of horrible things.

I”ll be the first to admit that I am drawn to filmmakers who use cinema as a way of pushing buttons, and I am a fan of the outrageous and the extreme. When I saw De Palma, the new documentary about Brian De Palma and his filmography, it sent me scrambling to watch a number of his older films again. They are so familiar at this point, so well-worn, that it surprised me to see how new they still feel when I took a step back. The next day, I went to a screening of the latest film from Nicolas Winding Refn, and the back-to-back timing of the two films made me laugh. More than anything, this feels like Refn working in the genre that De Palma had largely to himself in the late “70s and early “80s before getting relegated to mere late-night Cinemax fodder.

Here”s the thing about erotic thrillers, though… one of the trickiest parts of film criticism has to do with writing honestly about the erotic.

After all, there are few things more private than what it is that turns each of us on. For many of us who spend our lives immersed in movies, part of the attraction is the powerful erotic charge film can create. I have fallen in love and lust in equal measure sitting in the dark, and there are film moments that still have a hold on me 30 years after I first saw them because of when I saw them and where they landed on my own personal development as a sexual being. When we give ourselves over completely to a film, we”re not sitting there detached. If it”s a good movie, and it manages to work up a decent head of steam, of course we”re going to get caught up in it like anyone else. So why is it that it feels like there”s plenty of film criticism written from the head or the heart, but next to none written directly from the crotch?

There”s little question where Nicolas Winding Refn is aiming with his new film The Neon Demon. This is a savage, jet-black look at young women, the fashion industry, and the bloody, ugly place those two collide. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, and I doubt you”ll see a better fit for a performer in any film this year. Fanning has been working consistently ever since she recorded a voice opposite her sister for the American release of My Neighbor Totoro. She did solid work in films like Reservation Road, The Nines, Babel, and Deja Vu, but she was young and unpolished still. The first time I truly thought there was something special happening in her performances was when she made Phoebe In Wonderland, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Somewhere all in a row. You watch those films, and you”ll see a young actor discovering all the tools available to her. She gives a terrific performance in the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, where it all comes down to one scene. In that scene, she”s doing a cold read of a page from the script being shot by the young heroes of the story, and she”s so good that it becomes a lesson in the difference between reading some lines and doing what a great actor does. Fanning has an unrehearsed natural quality that she”s able to evoke even when she”s in something as completely and utterly divorced from reality as this film is.

Nothing about this movie suggests that we”re meant to take anything we”re watching as literal. Things unfold with a weird dream logic, and Refn”s more than happy to leave story threads or character details totally unexplained. There is a definite narrative through-line, and it”s a fairly simple one, but Refn takes his time getting there. Long sequences unfold without any dialogue, and there is a pervasive sense of darkness pushing in at the edge of things from the first frame to the last. Refn”s films are about surfaces as much as they”re about anything else, and there is something sweaty and tactile about the world of The Neon Demon. The film opens on what appears to be a murder, with Jesse (Fanning) sprawled on a couch, bled out. That turns out to be a photo shoot as she works to put together her portfolio. She”s just arrived in Los Angeles, and she wants to be a model. The first person she meets is Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who is immediately drawn to Jesse”s youth and innocence. Ruby”s the one who introduces Jesse to Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), two models who have managed to establish a foothold in the industry. Right away, there”s something predatory and malicious about the way the girls treat Jesse.

And why not? Every time she goes in for an interview or an audition in the film, she wins. She books the gigs, she gets the runway show, she”s given the best spot. The photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), the Fashion Designer (Alessandro Nivola), the agent (Christina Hendricks), and even Hank (Keanu Reeves), the guy from the seedy motel where she stays… they all react to her like they”re drunk. Whatever she has, they can smell it on her. It”s a chemical thing, and Jesse pretends to be unaware of what she does to other people. There”s just enough going on in Fanning”s performance to hint at the idea that she is as much of a predator as everyone else.

The first half of the film just feels like a long slow stroll through the world. It”s not until later that things begin to take a darker turn. Something deadly shows up in her motel room. Someone else tries to drink her blood. A spurned woman turns to something unspeakable for release. The movie begins to introduce horror elements, subtle at first then more and more overt, building to a conclusion that is a jet-black punchline that reveals just how serious Refn is about any of this. Malone”s good in the film, and Bella Heathcote has some nice moments, but the two strongest performances here belong to Fanning and Abbey Lee. When she showed up as one of the stolen Mothers in Mad Max: Fury Road, Lee made an immediate visual impression, long and gangly, towering over all the other women. She was weird, touched by her captivity, and Lee found ways to make every line seem special. She is sleek and burnished and deadly here, and it”s a very knowing, often hilarious piece of work.

As a thriller, there”s very little in the way of plot to really digest. It”s more a case of watching a character sink into an ugly world, little by little, told in a very impressionistic way. And as far as the other half of the “erotic thriller” equation? Refn knows exactly what he”s doing here, and part of what makes the film an intentional provocation is knowing that Elle Fanning was still under 18 when they were in production. There”s no nudity from Fanning, but the entire film is pitched at a certain frequency. Refn doesn”t just want to get his audience hard… he wants to make them feel bad about it afterward. His movies always fetishize his leads. A huge part of what made Drive such a sensation was the way it used Gosling as a sexual icon. When Refn shot Tom Hardy in Bronson, he changed his career. He turned this former skinny character actor kid into a terrifying brute. Refn shoots Jesse like a child at times, but he”s also very canny about when he turns up the sexuality. There”s a photo shoot where Jesse is asked to disrobe. The entire sequence is played out as a close-up on Jesse”s face, and the full range of what Fanning does during that scene is impressive and nuanced. The film is absolutely affecting, and it would be a failure if it didn”t manage to cause some sort of reaction.

I”ve read the script by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham, and the biggest difference between the page and the actual film is that things were explained carefully in the script. Character arcs were far more conventional. It read more like a “normal” movie. What Refn has crafted here is a nightmare. A beautiful, elegant, ultra-modern nightmare. The Cliff Martinez score is perfect, and Natasha Braier”s photography is muscular and precise, exquisite at times, garish at others. This is definitely the same guy who made Only God Forgives and Drive and Pusher and Bronson and all the rest. His movies exist on a continuum, and they are unmistakably his. He even brands the opening titles with his three initials so that everyone”s title card also features his name. And while he may play it with a totally straight face, there is something about the film that almost feels like he”s daring you not to laugh. The Neon Demon”s going to frustrate anyone who goes in looking for a conventional film or a thriller that has any interest in actually scaring you. This is a ride, a carefully crafted experience, and it is precisely because it is so immersive and controlled that I would recommend it. Refn”s going to have a long career, and I hope he continues to craft his playful, pointed little slices of darkness.

The Neon Demon is in theaters tomorrow.