The Neon Demon (2016) prime

May 11th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn | Cast: Elle Fanning, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendriks, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman | 110min | Thriller | US

Nicolas Winding Refn’s coruscating takedown of the LA fashion industry epitomises the competitive resentment women feel for one another in this cat eat cat world.

Its subject matter clearly indicates that this is not a thriller about wallflowers or the faint-hearted. A phenomenal central performance from Elle Fanning leads a cast of international acting talent categorised by punchy female characters with two standout male roles for Alessandro Nivola and Keanu Reeves. Scripted by Winding Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, this mannered often bitchy exposé is driven forward by its blindingly magnetic visual style and a pounding electronic soundtrack from Cliff Martinez (Drive).

When 16 year old Jessie (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA from her native Georgia she cuts a seemingly demure and homespun figure amid the blare and bright lights of  LA’s modelling fraternity. Jessie is no strinking violet, but up against the hard-bitten competition she has a ‘deer in the headlights’ quality which is much sought-after by the agency heads and photographers and soon catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s cliquey fashion designer wannabe actor. Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. You’ve got something that other women would kill for – natural beauty”. His words will eventually bear poisonous fruit although Refn fails to delivery a satisfyingly convincing outcome for his underwritten heroine.

There are scenes in this shocking often erotic thriller that audiences will find objectionable. Elle Fanning carries through her character’s naive personality with a subtlety that connects us to the hard-edged world where most sink in the mire. The themes of vampirism and cannibalism at times feel far-fetched and outlandish but make this fantasy somehow plausible in this fake community where evil lurks in every character, a manifestation of fear of failing and losing face – quite literally.

Refn’s visionary visual style that aligns him with Jonathan Glazer in Under the Skin where unspoken scenes project us into the realms of mystery and even terror and once again, he is driven by the power of electronic sound which tinkles and throbs by turns. This is an LA inhabited by real and metaphorical vampires who ‘feed off’ their victims with a creepy and hateful fascination showcased by Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Gary Oldman’s Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

There are some impressive performances from Christina Hendricks’ model booker and , Jena Malone’s lesbian make-up artist Ruby. Jesse’s rivals Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) seethe with poorly disguised malice in some of the most viturperative lines their vacuous characters have ever uttered, spitting venom on Jesse’s meteoric rise to acceptance amongst the male designers and photographers. Alessandro Nivola is stunningly persuasive as a cruelly narcissistic fashion designer who has models parade in front of him in their underwear before callously dismissing them. The only character who plays it straight is Jesse’s decent boyfriend (Karl Glusman) who is cast aside when he cramps her style. As despite her lack of redemption, Fanning is nonetheless our conduit into this sunny world of lost souls floundering on the dark side that Refn conjures up with conviction and aplomb leaving us without a Hollywood happy ending in the true style of Polanski. MT



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