Casual human observation is one of my favorite spectator sports. Going to a club or some other social setting, I’ve witnessed people vainly staring into the bathroom mirror wordlessly telling themselves one thing: “Yeah, I’d fuck me.” This essentially sums up what experiencing The Neon Demon feels like, and even then it only begins to scratch its shining surface.
Writer/Director Nicholas Winding Refn has a visual style that tends to frenetically flow past the need for a bloated story or even meaningful dialogue. Depending on the premise of the film, Refn can turn it into a monumental success (Drive) or a flashy mess (Only God Forgives). The Neon Demon transforms into a sleek, nightmarish LA wet fever dream that transports us into a world we have only seen glamorized on smaller screens and magazines. The world Refn paints for us isn’t filled with common crowds because commonality is considered a deadly sin to him. Instead, each scene is beautifully staged with a minimal amount of people to give the film a more intimate, magazine editorial essence that continues to engage you while simultaneously making you feel like you don’t and can’t exist in their world.
It’s obvious that the word of the day is “beauty,” and Refn attempts to convince you that it is not in the eye of the beholder. Instead, he believes that it is something you are either born with or try futilely to achieve through physical modifications and surgery. Refn breaks it down to organic, effortless beauty, or an inherently tainted fabricated/manufactured “beauty.” The first exists like some magnificent occurring natural phenomenon while the latter reeks of artificiality and emptiness. By the end of the film, you will likely be conflicted as to which definition of “beauty” the film falls under, but that is exactly its intention.
Through Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) all too familiar small town beginnings, we are able to witness the corruption as it seeps into every pore through the fluorescent lights and metallic paints. Every interaction is self-serving and done ultimately out of some ulterior motive. Dean (Karl Glusman), the idealistic guy who recognizes Jesse’s unique beauty and tries to use it for his photography career. Hank (Keanu Reeves), the shady motel owner that takes advantage of the innocent, naive youth that stay there. Ruby (Jena Malone), the sexually repressed make-up artist who befriends Jesse in the hopes of being able to sleep with her. Roberta (Christina Hendricks), the model agent who perpetuates the vicious cycle, she may have once been a victim of knowing full-well the tragic outcome. All these people are there to prey and devour any semblance of innocence for their own gain, focusing on the corruption of spirit and not body.
Throughout The Neon Demon, we are shown multiple examples of nature trying to fight back against the superficial world of the allegorical Neon Demon. A mountain lion appears in a once-thought-to-be safe place to show how insidious the predatory nature of the city is and to serve as an unheeded warning. The bright color palettes and radiant glow of the lighting is meant to prove how easily we too can be seduced, likes moths to a flame. When you worship at the alter of Beauty, the sacrifices will never be enough. Behind the hedonistic lifestyle is a primal urge that feeds off of the figuratively ritualistic murder of angels (innocence) in an attempt to appease the demon. Inside the flawless physical exterior lies a demonic darkness that corrupts all who pursue it, turning sheep into cannibalistic wolves.
For better or worse, Refn has consistently shown to practice what he preaches. None of his previous films come close to completely capturing his thematic ideas and intent to the point of becoming them like The Neon Demon. Much like the characters in his film, Refn’s seemingly unobtainable and foolish pursuit of perfection have the potential of leading to (career) death. Despite the aggressive visual barrage and complete air of narcissism within and without, The Neon Demon will haunt and possess you long past your comfort limit.
Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)