Look, Nicholas Winding Refn is either your brand of vodka, or he’s not. Drive is usually considered his name-maker, but its stylized violence and narrative coldness yielded plenty of detractors – many of whom got to sneer a “toldja so” when his next film, 2013’s Only God Forgives, was rebuffed by audiences and (most) critics alike. That picture amped his particular brand of maximalist minimalism to what seemed its loudest roar; given its reception, you couldn’t blame Refn for retreating a bit, playing it safe, going for something just a dab more user-friendly. But that would indicate a humbling, and if we’ve learned one thing about Refn, it’s that he’s not humble. Would a humble filmmaker place a monogram of his initials on his title cards?
The very first image of his new film The Neon Demon pretty much sets the template: it’s a beautiful young woman with her throat cut, lying on a fainting couch and arranged just so, the blood pooling at her fingertips. It’s artfully composed and gorgeously photographed, and a ruse; the young woman is a model, and this is an artsy-bloody photo shoot (an apt description of the movie, frankly). Her name is Jesse, and she’s played by Elle Fanning like a doe taking her first steps, right into the headlights. She’s just arrived in Los Angeles, and makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) has got her newbie number right away: “You’ve got that look.”
Fortunately, she’s in a business where freshness is nearly as valuable a commodity as beauty. She’s staying in a sleazy motel and doesn’t have a good portfolio or even business cards yet, but she’s got that certain something; everyone who sees her is either captivated or threatened, but all the while she maintains her goodness, her shiny innocence. She’s so pure, her rise to success so fairy tale simple, that there’s some question of whether this is a dream or a fantasy, inspired by her wide-eyed idealism.
That’s one of the many ways Refn seems to draw from Mulholland Dr.; there’s also a similarly odd, half-zonked quality to the dialogue scenes, which often play like conversations translated to another language and recited phonetically. This isn’t meant as a knock – there’s never a moment in The Neon Demon that feels like Refn didn’t get exactly what he wanted. The falseness of the interactions makes sense within the fashion world’s confines of vapidity, and that goes double for the cold aesthetics of his staging, which extends the self-consciousness of the photo shoots to the world outside them.
So he gets what he wants. Does it work? Depends on your definition. The performances are terrific, particularly Malone – even when she’s listening, she’s interesting – and Fanning, who manages to be both present in the moment and a closed-off enigma, a perpetual question mark. Is she shy, or is she hiding something? The images (captured by Natasha Braier) are gorgeous, richly saturated and beautifully arranged. Cliff Martinez’s music is the business, so tightly synced to the picture and its tones that it feels less like accompaniment than parallel dialogue. And his sense of mood remains tip-top – particularly in establishing a sense of overall dread, an unsettling and constant undertone of Jesse’s potential victimization. There are plenty of disturbing scenes and moments that speak in the language of assault (if not the explicit imagery). Refn knows he’s playing with dynamite in these scenes, but it doesn’t feel like exploitation; it feels like awareness. (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham collaborated with him on the script.)
And still, it’s all just so… well, Refn. It’s overly indulgent and intoxicated by its own cleverness and easily transposes commentary on shallowness with a lack of depth of its own. A little of his peacocking style goes a long way, is the point, and it reaches its apex in the ape-shit bananas Argento-meets-Meyer-meets-Showgirls final half-hour, which is full of moments and indulgences in which you’ll likely think, “Oh, he won’t,” and then you realize yes, he sure will. Yet this viewer can’t help but admire how deliriously over-the-top, tasteless, and off-putting that last section is; it’s the logical extension of what’s come before, which tells you a lot about what’s come before.
Movies like The Neon Demon laugh in the face of conventional criticism – you can take apart the antiseptic dialogue and overwrought approach and carnival-freak conclusion, and the film will nod and give you an improv-style “Yes, and?” I suspect most audiences will hate it, but it’s hard to feel bad for them. This far in, it’s difficult to sympathize with anyone who buys a ticket for a Nicolas Winding Refn movie and doesn’t know what they’re in for.
The Neon Demon is out Friday.