Like an arthouse version of Showgirls, Nicholas Winding Refn's latest movie The Neon Demon filters high camp through the filmmaker's impeccable eye, set to the pulsing soundtrack of Cliff Martinez delivering the year's best score. It is transcendently superficial, concerned with aesthetics above all else. It is a movie about people obsessed with surfaces, reflecting that obsession back with two hours of impossible cool and gorgeous surfaces. In the words of one famous filmmaker, movies are Picture and Sound. Well, Refn offers some of the best Pictures and Sound of 2016. Provided we accept the aforementioned definition of film, The Neon Demon is one of the year's best.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year old girl who has just moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a model. She signs with an agent (Christina Hendricks) who advises Jesse to list her age as 19 and begins to book a number of high profile jobs, in the process befriending a makeup artist (Jenna Malone) and drawing the ire of rival models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).
Though it lacks the commercial appeal of Refn's 2011 breakout Drive (still his most accessible movie; this one is closer to his follow-up, Only God Forgives, a movie I am not particularly crazy about), there remain a number of similarities between the two movies. If Drive is Refn's L.A. noir film, The Neon Demon is his L.A. horror -- not only because it slowly gives way to the conventions of the genre, but also because it's a movie about the horror of living in a city that wants to eat you alive. And, like with Drive, Refn is riffing on other films that have influenced him. The world with which we are presented here has nothing to do with the actual fashion industry and everything to do with other movies: the nightmarish abstraction of David Lynch, the extreme lighting of Suspiria and Inferno-period Dario Argento, the mixing of slick sexuality and darkly comic Grand Guignol traceable back to Brian De Palma's early thrillers. It's no wonder I fucking love this movie.
Here is a case of a filmmmaker having his gorgeous, blood-soaked cake and eating it too. From the opening titles, which appear with Refn's initials (NWR) inscribed at the bottom of the screen, the director announces a film that is both a celebration and a critique of pretentiousness -- a poison letter to Los Angeles in which nearly every single character, from the guy who runs the motel (Keanu Reeves, continuing to build on the goodwill earned with his performance in Knock Knock) to a comically intense photographer (Desmond Harrington) to the fashion designer played like a parody of the elite (Alessandro Nivola), is a monster at once trying to exploit Jesse and trying to own her in some way. She is special, untainted, unaltered by surgery. Young. New. Even Jesse recognizes this. Fanning plays her as mostly a blank, never fully letting on one way or another as to how much of Jesse's deer-in-the-headlights naïveté is the real deal and how much is a put-on to give people what it is they want. She knows that she is special and says as much. What she doesn't know is just how strong an effect she'll have on the predators by which she is surrounded, all of whom are drawn to her like animals to pheromones. Therein lies the trouble: you can expect the worst of people, but they'll always surprise you by being even more horrible.
The Neon Demon isn't just a movie; it's an experience. Find the biggest screen and the loudest sound system you can and see it while it's still in theaters, as a movie this polarizing isn't going to play for very long (at least not in its first run, though I suspect it will become a fixture on the revival circuit). It may not offer much new to say, but it offers a new and stunning way to say it. Plenty of people will reject it because it's that kind of movie. That's ok. It's also the kind of movie that some of us eat up.