I was leery of this film at first, to be honest. I didn’t particularly enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, which I was advised was the best film of Refn’s to start with. Luckily, I adored The Neon Demon. It reminded me of Black Swan mixed with Starry Eyes.
The film follows a naive, hopeful young woman named Jesse (played by Elle Fanning), who has just moved to Los Angeles to become a model. She soon discovers that the industry isn’t as glamorous as she thought, and that the modeling industry is cutthroat. She makes enemies with two fellow models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) after landing a coveted gig, and her only friend is Jena Malone’s makeup artist Ruby.
The Neon Demon is absolutely gorgeous. Everything is drenched in neon, and the lighting is superb. I absolutely loved how glitter and haute couture was mixed with grime and blood, and even though this film does contain nudity, it never felt gratuitous. The ending takes a sharp turn in WTF territory, but I personally adored it.
The performances are mostly solid. Elle does a good job portraying Jesse as innocent, naive, and hopeful. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are bitchy and you can feel their hate and contempt for Jesse practically roiling off of them in waves. Keanu Reeves was perfectly slimy as the owner of the cheap, shady motel where Jesse lives, and Desmond Harrington was captivating as Jack, a photographer who loves to cover his models in glitter and body paint (and also have them undress). The standout performance, though, came from Jena Malone. She was basically the only sane, down to earth person in the film (well, at least for the majority of the run time…), and she was the emotional anchor that kept Jesse (and me) invested in the cutthroat world she lived in.
The story is simple, and in typical Refn fashion, is hidden in the background, beneath the visual splendor on display. Some will find this movie to be style over substance, but if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll discover a story about hope, dreams, and the dissolution of those two qualities by a world that wants to eat you for breakfast.
The Neon Demon is a gorgeous film with great performances, beautiful visuals, and a sharp story that you have to dig out from the grit and glamour of what’s being portrayed on screen. If you like films with a straightforward narrative and don’t want to be thinking “what the fuck?” during your viewing, The Neon Demon is definitely NOT for you. If you like beautiful movies that make you think, though, definitely give this Demon a taste.
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