“You know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous!”
The world of modelling and photography just got a whole lot darker; surely Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss never had it this bad? (Minus Moss’ unfortunate tumble in the new ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS (2016) movie). Polarising critics, THE NEON DEMON directed by the exceptional NICOLAS WINDING REFN gorges itself on the cruelty of modelling and the desperation one would take to remain on top. Scored with blood, nudity and hypnotic neon lights THE NEON DEMON terrorises our perception of ‘pretty’ and forces a new appreciation for the struggles in front of the camera before and after the shot has been taken. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”
Refn’s cult thriller follows Jesse (Elle Fanning, MALEFICENT (2014) and TRUMBO (2015)), an under aged teen of 16, in an attempt to pursue her dream of becoming a model. Her introduction is presented to the audience at her first photo-shoot where she is glamorously embroidered with deep coloured sequins and soaked in blood from the neck down whilst being draped over a chaise longue. The symbolism created in the opening scene of the film tonally replicates the entire essence of the feature and successfully manages to transform the audience away from the norm of the real world and into the chaotic world Jesse was to embark.
Jena Malone (THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013) and SUCKER PUNCH (2011)) makes an early and consistent appearance as the fierce, no nonsense make-up artist Ruby, distinctly aiding and conversely intimidating Jesse throughout. Malone performs most successfully when channelling a strong female character, something she appears to accomplish and support in this feature even when surrounded by a whole cast of strong female actors. Two of which, played respectively by Abbey Lee (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) and Bella Heathcote (DARK SHADOWS (2012) and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016), are Sarah and Gigi. Both women in the film star as current sought after models who at first seem naive to Jesse’s potential but quickly develop jealousy towards her and serve as secondary antagonists – the primary antagonist being the industry itself.
THE NEON DEMON also sees Keanu Reeves make an appearance as Hank, an unpleasant manager of a motel who has a sinister personality which parallels the horrific nature of the film. Playing only a smaller role, Reeves still manages to cement a memorable performance and would put off anyone thinking about staying a night at that motel. (A friendly reminder to check your rooms for any mountain lions before tucking in at night).
“…transform the audience away from the norm of the real world and into the chaotic world Jesse was to embark.”
Fitting comfortable into Nicolas Winding Refn’s catalogue of dark and eerie thrillers, most notably DRIVE (2011) and ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013), THE NEON DEMON appears to utilise the contrast of dark with the mysteriously bright neon lights to develop a somewhat alien or terrifying atmosphere which is maintained for the majority of the feature; only occasionally breaking to a white or sunlit scene. The maintained visual darkness resembles the lighting of the German one take thriller VICTORIA (2016) directed by Sebastian Schipper and released in the UK earlier this year. More recently the Netflix original series STRANGER THINGS (2016) complies to a similar atmosphere of neon contrasted with dark, and an eerie focus to the plot; albeit much less graphic than THE NEON DEMON.
Labelled with an 18 certificate, Refn’s masterpiece shows disturbing and horrific scenes that should not be taken lightly – including a distressing display of necrophilia. However, the film manages to retain integrity and the unusual components of THE NEON DEMON feel necessary and important to the progression of Jesse as a character and to the plot. Noting an earlier scene taking place at a bondage party, a hypnotic (and non-disturbing or explicit) display is exaggerated by a syncopated pulsing black to red neon light warrants the film a light sensitive epilepsy warning at the expense of a truly beautiful avant-garde scene.
THE NEON DEMON marries fears with the intensity and attraction of brightly coloured lighting to produce a unique feature. Elle Fanning shines (poetically in a neon pink haze) as a young talent and has already proved her broad range as an actor. Fanning’s charm and natural naivety alongside Refn’s brilliant writing and directing leaves THE NEON DEMON as a captivating and an immensely enjoyable experience.
Review by John Cheshire