‘Style over substance’ has been a common – and, in my view, lazy – criticism of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, reaching a fervently angry fever pitch this year at Cannes when his latest effort, The Neon Demon, premiered to a chorus of boos and insults. Thankfully, Refn seems to take none of these accusations seriously, making movie after movie increasingly committed to the ethos of style as substance, a formula which he has perfected in this LA fashion scene-set surrealist horror. The Neon Demon is a deliberately divisive piece of work, one that will be hated as much as it is loved, but is the best film I’ve seen all year.
Refn tackling the world of modelling and high fashion was never going to be short on beautiful visuals and design, but the level of directorial skill on show here is simply staggering. Every shot is composed with Refn’s trademark formal perfectionism, but with more inspired flourishes than ever before. Just as Only God Forgives borrowed not only themes but also visual cues from Oedipus, so does The Neon Demon take similar inspirations from the Narcissus story. The pinnacle of this comes during ostensible heroine Jessie’s (Elle Fanning) first catwalk, where an abstract runway walk ends with a collision with a three-way mirror. In this moment, Jessie falls in love with her own reflection in a sequence so simultaneously gorgeous and unsettling that it will haunt you for days.
Every single detail of that and almost every other scene is crafted meticulously enough to burn itself right into your brain almost immediately. Aided by Cliff Martinez’s incredible score, the atmosphere of The Neon Demon is thickly oppressive, constantly building a sense of dread. As we follow Jessie, a 16 year old aspiring model who is immediately seized upon by the ravenous beauty industry, each scene drags us further down into a glitzy Californian hellscape.
On one of Jessie’s first nights in LA, she meets and befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to two established models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). Despite still being in their early 20s, obsolescence approaches both of them, a fact they recognise all too bitterly. Jessie’s arrival, ‘fresh meat’ to the older models’ ‘sour milk’, as Sarah bluntly puts it, threatens to hasten an end to their stardom and the resentment this causes makes Gigi and Sarah incredibly dangerous.
An early sequence in which the four leads go to a party sets the queasy tone of the relationship between them when Ruby asks Jessie if she’s ‘sex or food’. In the world of The Neon Demon, both options are presented as nearly equivalently horrific, and if you’re especially unlucky, you might even get to be both. The uneasiness only escalates from there, with classic horror tropes intermingling with things altogether more frightening and surreal. In the last 20 minutes, Refn really goes for broke, upping the depravity to a jaw-dropping denouement which will leave you laughing, retching, and genuinely disturbed. The sheer power of this finale doesn’t become evident until the credits (which are a vital part of the movie that have to be seen) roll, acting as a magnificently ambitious epilogue that elevates all that comes before it.
Horror of the kind that Refn and his writing partners Mary Laws and Polly Stenham present here is inextricably tied to a sort of pitch dark campiness, making The Neon Demon far more watchable than Only God Forgives, even though it is even less interested in conventional narrative than its predecessor. If the gruesome and explicit taboo-busting doesn’t put you off, then there is actually fun to be had here too. A film with a Shakespeare-quoting fashion designer, a mountain lion trashing Jessie’s room, and Keanu Reeves playing the sleaziest motel owner in history can only take itself so seriously.
There’s also just enough character work done for the endgame to be engaging outside of just its boldness and execution. Jessie’s transformation from genuinely naive to disastrously arrogant is handled well by both the script and Elle Fanning’s performance. It’s not an easy role, particularly as the film falls further and further into the rabbit hole of bizarre hysteria, but Fanning completely sells every crucial moment.
No actor involved could be accused of phoning it in. Performances here are raw and unnerving, with Jena Malone and Abbey Lee getting the most outrageous scenes and pulling them off with style. It’s not quite a star-making turn for Lee (this film is too small and weird for that) but she is properly terrifying, by turns robotic and psychotic, in her biggest role to date. However, whilst Ryan Gosling became the icon of Drive, and Tom Hardy became the reason people remember Bronson, Refn has here made a film that he is the undisputed star of, with Cliff Martinez and cinematographer Natasha Braier his most important support. As a sensory experience and work of visual art, The Neon Demon is an unparalleled success for cinema in 2016.