The story of Narcissus was once a cautionary tale, exposing the damning nature of vanity and the way it can consume us whole. Jump forward to the 21st century, and Narcissus would be a modern hero. In a world dominated by selfies and celebrity, who wouldn’t want to be so beautiful that even their own reflection caused them eternal pause? This line of thinking is what led director Nicolas Winding Refn to his latest cinematic masterpiece, The Neon Demon.
The film centers around Jessie (Elle Fanning), an exceptionally beautiful yet shy girl that’s new to LA and, much like every other fresh young face, has dreams of becoming something extraordinary. While Jessie dismisses her own self as being completely devoid of talent, she is inherently aware of her own beauty and the affect it has on people. As Jessie enters a room some immediately fall in love, some want to be her and a chosen few would love to see her dead, devoid of the beauty she so effortlessly flaunts among those less fortunate.
It’s that beauty that helps Jessie ascend the model foodchain with unbelivable ease going from being signed to an agency within moments of arriving to being shot by coveted photographers and headlining runways all within a fleetingly short amount of time. This pleases her new found friend Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist with a clear infatuation with Jessie, but immediately starts distress amongst Ruby’s model pals Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate). Whereas Ruby is too busy being smitten, Sarah and Gigi see someone that’s a threat to their futures. Their beauty is manufactured, whether by makeup and clothing or excessive surgery. Yet here stands this perfect creation who without a single effort steals every breath in the room.
As the height of Jessie’s ascension, in one of the film’s most brilliant visual sequences, she encounters the titular Neon Demon. Now, please here me out, this is in no way shape or form any kind of demon that you’ve already placed in your mind. It exists not to show Jessie what she can become, but what she already is. She is the sun in a cold room. In a world where beauty is the highest currency, Jessie truly is everything. After her encounter, gone is the girl that acknowledge and accepted her beauty. Now here stands a being completly ruled by it. In this moment, Narcissus gives ways to Icarus but what happens when the supposed sun gets too close to the actual one?
Refn is truly at the height of his talents with The Neon Demon. The sparse dialouge, the way he can linger in a moment just the right amount of time. He has a way of making the absolutely unnerving look exquisite and that’s no small feat. Every single shot could be a photo on your wall that you examined incessantly for years, still marveling at how one could capture such beauty. Sequences flow perfectly and precisely. Much of this is aided by the other half of this cinematic dream team, Cliff Martinez. While much in the same vein as his scores for Drive and Only God Forgives, Martinez’s latest score builds upon those with a heavy smattering of horror influence, creating in my opinion the best work he’s done yet. Songs bounce with a life all their own and hint at all the rot and decay that lurks under such beautiful things. As talented as Refn and the cast clearly are, none of it succeeds without Martinez’s score guiding the story from beginning to end.
Not to be outdone is the cast, headed up by the truly sensational Elle Fanning. Fanning brings so many layers to her portrayl of Jessie that make the character welcoming but also retains some of her mystery throughout, leaving the audience in mass anticipation for what comes next. I also can not say enough good things about Jena Malone’s turn as Ruby. Without any backstory, the audience is still given this richly developed character through her subtle nuances and mannerisms and it’s a true testament to Malone’s ability and range. The rest of the cast puts in incredibly solid work, including Johnny Utah himself, Keanu Reeves. While Keanu popping up as sleazy hotel manager initially seems to play as a quick laugh he totally makes you buy into his absolute ickiness and does some impressive work in some of the films more intense scenes.
One of my favorite aspects of art as a whole is it’s ability to take questionable things and make the viewer appreciate them in a way that makes them second guess not only their taste but their moral compass. With The Neon Demon, Refn lays the groundwork early when the audience, along with Jessie’s would-be suitor, find out she’s only 16 after he and us have clearly had time to have impure thoughts about her. Yet we’re along for the ride. Then the hotel of runaways and dreamers that Keanu is keeping in order (and seemingly taking more than rent whenever he pleases) posits yet another moral divergence. Again, we press on; hungry for more of what Refn has to offer. This culminates in this incredibly well framed piece where a scorned would-be lover uses a dead body as fornication surrogate while fantasizing about the not-quite-legal Jessie whom caused the scorn in the first place. All of this should be off-putting and despised; leaving the viewer sick to their stomachs for even etertaining such delights. Yet, entertain we do. Refn utilizes his every artistic muscle and manuever to frame these moments of staunch depravity in a whirlwind of sonic beauty that leaves you begging for more.
The Neon Demon is a fairy tale of primal horror disguised as cinematic fashion magazine. Instead of lands of yore and cutesy imagery, this moral tale is comprised of editorials, runways and most important of all, beauty. Much like a magazine, though, once the glitz and glamour have been analyzed and scrutinized by the reader, the beauty is devoured and we move on to the next piece of heaven on earth, anxiously awaiting to devour it whole as well. Nicolas Winding Refn not only understands this need to consume, he has made a film shoving this consumption into our faces always ready with second and third helpings. It’s not so much a film about exposing some sort of seedy underbelly as it is exposing that which is right in front of us; the rotting and decaying lie of beauty. Coupled with truly standout performances from Fanning and Malone, and brought to sonic life by Martinez’s best score yet, The Neon Demon is now Refn’s high water mark. I anxiously await consuming it over and over until the last.
Out of 5 nerdskulls:
Story: 5/Acting: 5/Directing: 5/ Visuals: 5
Overall Score: 5 Nerdskulls
Check out the trailer here:
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