Drive director delivers spectacular send up of fashion industry

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Neon Demon
Opens June 24
4 out of 5

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won thousands of new followers five years ago thanks to the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive. He lost them almost immediately with his next effort, the impenetrable Only God Forgives (2013). It wasn’t Refn’s fault. He has always followed the beat of his own drum. With Drive, the right stars just happened to align to produce a hit.

This doesn’t mean Refn is without talent. His heroes are laser-focused individuals whose single-mindedness reshapes the environment they move in (see Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Pusher). Violence is a frequent travelling companion, but is never gratuitous. It’s just unavoidable.

Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, follows the same pattern, but adds a searing critique of society’s pursuit and adoration of physical beauty. It’s also a stunning creation. The composition and atmosphere are so on point, even if the script falters, the visuals are mesmerizing — you may not even notice there’s barely a plot in place.

As usual in Refn’s movies, the hero is one of few words (bordering on a blank slate, really). Jesse (Elle Fanning, Maleficent) is one of hundreds of pretty girls moving to Los Angeles hoping to break into modeling. Her untarnished, innocent look gets her noticed immediately by mercurial photographers and haute-couture moguls, but also by fellow mannequins who don’t treat newcomers kindly.

Practically everyone Jesse meets behaves like a predator (in case the point is not clear, an actual cougar breaks into her motel room). Initially, Jesse is a deer in the headlights, saved only by villains running interference on each other. Eventually, she realizes she is in possession of the most valuable currency in town: natural beauty.

Not the most fascinating or original narrative, but the way Refn tells the story is bewitching. Every single frame has been curated. Most of the compositions are stunning and would stand on their own, devoid of context. No filmmaker currently working makes better use of slow-motion as a cinematic tool.

Refn doesn’t dispense moral judgments. That would be too easy. Instead, we learn how a world dominated by beauty would operate, stripped of all platitudes or pretensions about it being “what’s inside” that truly matters. While that demands a degree of poetic license from Refn, it’s not that far from reality (at least until the Grand Guignol finale hits). The “It” factor is treated more as a capricious inkling than an undefined quality — an approach that pays off in ways you can’t begin to imagine.

Fanning’s performance as the doe-eyed model is deceptively simple. Jesse starts as spectacularly naïve, but the industry’s values imprint on her soon enough. As the “evil stepsisters”, Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows) and Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road), are spectacularly volatile. In any other circumstance, the role of a shady motel owner would be thankless, but Keanu Reeves gives it an edge bound to make the audience uncomfortable.

The Neon Demon doesn’t shy away from giving you reasons to walk out, but few films are as rewarding if you stick with it to the bitter end. It’s my favourite movie of 2016 so far.