It's plain to see right from the very start of The Neon Demon that Nicolas Winding Refn wants to cajole his viewers out of apathy. Why else would he emblazon his initials of NWR beneath the title as the opening titles roll by? It's immediately, and blatantly, infuriating. But it's also a ploy. A hugely narcissistic one, which also just so happens to reflect The Neon Demon's world and characters.
Refn toys and incites his audience throughout The Neon Demon; agitating and prodding them in the same way that a matador lulls in a bull. I think. Or, maybe, after My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn the filmmaker now has a complete disregard for his audiences' wants and desires and has instead gone whole hog into his imagination. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Either way, The Neon Demon will undoubtedly polarize and infuriate. But even if you despise every single frame, it will also stick in your mind, like a bad meal that was so distasteful you almost have to appreciate it on a whole other level that's not even related to dining.
A radiant Elle Fanning -- who somehow manages to look both perversely infantile as well as wise beyond her years -- stars as Jesse, a young and aspiring model who has just moved to Los Angeles. 16 but insisting she's 18, Elle befriends two other models, a make-up artist, and a burgeoning photographer, as her career quickly progresses. But as her popularity increases, Jesse not only has to battle her exacerbated ego, but the people around her soon begin to plot her downfall, too.
To go into more details regarding the plot would act as a detriment to your enjoyment of The Neon Demon, which revels in pushing the envelope, and testing the resolve and, even, the stomach of its audience. What keeps it grounded is Elle Fanning, who is utterly transfixing as Jesse, and becomes more captivating as her naïve, virginal exterior gives way to a more complex and biting interior. It also helps that she is filmed adoringly by Nicolas Winding Refn, who manages to find even the smallest glimmer of beauty in each of his shots.
While Elle Fanning deserves praise and kudos for her portrayal, especially considering how vulnerable and exposed the 18-year-old is for periods and how the film's gaze is constantly on the cusp of being inappropriate, this is Nicolas Winding Refn's show. Refn almost purposeful chooses musical cues and stylistic choices to mirror his most recent work (Drive and Only God Forgives), while even the title The Neon Demon is a nickname that could easily have been applied to him following these films.
Refn almost begs and invites his audience -- especially his critics, which anyone who has watched My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn knows he pay the upmost attention to -- to judge and hate, before then pulling the rug from underneath them.
Yet while this cinematic bluffing battle simmers under the surface, Nicolas Widing Refn never lets his intentions get in the way of creating an eclectic array of bewildering beautiful sequences, some of which are simple in their presentation but utterly intoxicating in their delivery. His Los Angeles is haunting, searing, and intimidating, yet its tropical, sweaty beauty is ever present, and Refn showcases a visual eye that's so potent and arresting it deserves comparison to Brian Wilson's ear.
Alongside its flimsy plot, The Neon Demon also presents an uncomfortably intimate exploration not just of the depressingly vapid trials, tribulations, trappings and threats of the world of modeling and the pursuit of true beauty, but of the struggles that come with a meteoric rise, and how it effects the people you usurp whose jealousy can't help but bubble up and froth to the surface.
Well, at least it does for its first two acts. Because The Neon Demon suddenly takes a hefty turn -- one that you'll later realize it has teased and built to with its characters, plots, dialogue, visual metaphors, use of colors and even stylistic touches throughout -- into a different genre, which is where it truly becomes fractious. At this point, The Neon Demon's scenes turn depraved, disturbing, sensationalist, and overly gratuitous - both sexually and violent, with the two even merging together. There's a masturbation scene in particular that will instantly set you aback, which actually acts as perfect metaphor for Refn's approach. To describe it would mean that I'll have to shower for a month to fully cleanse myself.
But while these moments are excessive and over the top, they are inflamed to provoke and illuminate Refn's visual metaphors regarding the pursuit of beauty and its regurgitation. At the same time though, in going so over the top, The Neon Demon's impact disintegrates as it goes off point and gives way to these surreal, overwhelming scenes of gore and horror. Nevertheless, if you invest and it clicks, The Neon Demon is an hallucinatory trip that will stay with you, even if it's ultimately more style than substance.