The latest from Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is a twisted, nightmarish fairy tale. Sixteen year old Jesse is new to L.A – a lost babe in the wood. Behind every corner are wolves, ghosts and witches – although here the disguise comes in the form of bold lipstick and plastic surgery rather than Grandmother’s night gown. Jesse is instantly exposed to a sinister world in which her doe-eyed innocence ironically sets her apart. It’s eat or be eaten in the land of high-end modelling and when she’s branded a potential star, Jesse’s appetite increases. She resides in a crumbling motel, a constant reminder of her vulnerability and solitude. Friends and foe merge and mutate around her with every flash of the camera. An intoxicating director, it was only a matter of time before Winding Refn made a film entitled The Neon Demon. Electronic music pounds and slides in and out of each scene with dusky pinks and deep blues filling almost every frame with a synthetic tint. Unfortunately The Neon Demon has more in common with Only God Forgives rather than earlier masterpiece Drive and strays too far into the absurd to really captivate. As the horror mounts, a wall between the screen and the audience also rises; the bizarre levels of nastiness almost shocking the audience into alienation.
Technically, everything is on point but, as the case has been in the most recent outings with the director, the film suffers from its self involvement. Watching The Neon Demon is a bit like being on a date with a very arrogant and beautiful human. There’s lovely stuff to look at but the conversation is limited as they continuously check their immaculate hair in the back of their dessert spoon. Awash with glitter and swag, it’s tough to fault the beauty of this hypnotic world. One too many dreamlike sequences turns the nightmare into a snooze-fest and other moments are drenched in gore, shaking you awake you in a cold sweat. Elle Fanning’s performance is impeccable. Darting between angel and demon, her face transforms between different scenes and sequences. Equally youthful and fierce, she allows Jesse to grow more complicated as the film progresses. Keanu Reeves appears briefly in a sinister supporting role but is still a joy to see on screen. Jena Malone reaches new heights in a bold and ambitious role but is ultimately let down by weak characterisation and plot. Purposefully controversial and deranged, The Neon Demon forgets to indulge us in what we came to see – the modelling world. When the camera turns away from the harsh superficiality of fashion to focus on carnage and gore things quickly go downhill.
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