- Title: The Neon Demon
- IMDb: link
In what is likely going to be one of the more divisive films of 2016, the latest from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) casts Elle Fanning as a naive 16 year-old girl just breaking into the model business in Los Angeles. Blessed with an ineffable quality no one can quite explain, Jesse (Fanning) soon becomes the hot new girl, much to the dismay of a pair of models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) seeing their careers flash before their eyes.
Jesse’s journey will lead her into contact with a wide variety of people including her creepy apartment manager (Keanu Reeves), jealous models, designers, photographers (Desmond Harrington and Karl Glusman), and a makeup artist (Jena Malone) all of whom want something from the young woman.
Refn’s film is a metaphor for how the modeling industry celebrates physical beauty in the absence of any other quality while slowly devouring the very objects of their devotion. The film takes the metaphor one step too far in the final act leaving the film with an ending that satisfies the movie’s message but not necessarily the audience.
The Neon Demon is stunning. The movie includes the top half-dozen most visually-interesting shots of the year so far. Natasha Braier (The Rover) becomes the early favorite for best cinematography of 2016. Without offering an explanation of what we’re seeing, or why we’re seeing it, Refn attempts to visually express the power of Jesse holds over others and the odd state she taps into when needed. The technique is impressive, but may put off some viewers as Braier and Refn trust the audience to make sense out of what they are seeing rather than explain what exactly happens to Jesse in the neon-lit reality.
While the script doesn’t quite elucidate what Jesse has that the other models lack (other than the fact that she’s both younger and newer than the faces already seen in magazines and runways), her power over both men and women (and its consequences) can’t be ignored. Heathcoate and Lee are both unquestionably beautiful women (arguably more physically attractive than Fanning), but Jesse has the illusive “it” that designers and photographers covet, leaving the other models to seethe in their jealousy.
Fanning is well-cast in the role of an naive, but hardly innocent, protagonist. Jesse understands, at least on some basic level, the power she holds and how she can use it to garner money and fame. The more success she finds only creates stronger lust in those who desire her while strengthening the hatred of those jealous with what comes so easily to her. The movie climaxes one beat too early, leading to a bizarre final act in which Refn steps over the line arguably becoming as pretentious as his characters. Even with this troubling flaw, The Neon Demon is one of the most memorable movies of 2016 so far.