“The Neon Demon” is the next stylish effort from Nicolas Winding Refn

neon demon
I still remember when I first saw Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece of an action drama. It was such a wonderfully stylized and confident film, it just blew me away. Refn had never done that before, so he was officially a filmmaker I needed to see keep up this new lease on cinematic life, as it were. This week, he unleashes The Neon Demon on the world, a stylish effort that has divided audiences since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. I fall somewhere right in the middle on it, but it’s well worth discussing, that’s for sure, so that’s what we’ll be doing today.

The movie is kind of a horror flick, but at the same time a satire/thriller/all of the above sort of endeavor. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the next big thing in the Los Angeles modeling world, lusted after by both men and women, while leered at with animosity by her fellow models. She makes a friend of sorts in makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but all is not as it seems, something that only becomes clearer in the third act, when a twist of sorts occurs. Basically, the first half looks at the cutthroat world of photoshoots, while the second half takes a far more monstrous turn. Refn directs and co-writes here with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, while in addition to Fanning and Malone, there’s a very eclectic cast on display. Who might they be? Well, just a sample includes Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Desmond Harrington, Karl Glusman, Charles Baker, and more. The score is by the very talented composer Cliff Martinez, while Natasha Braier handles the cinematography. The look of this film is beyond reproach, that’s for sure.

I have some issues with the flick, but the look of it is not one. Refn and his cinematographer have created perhaps his most visually dynamic and interesting film yet. The script falls short of the mark, but the direction certainly does not. The performances are also solid, especially from Fanning, Malone (who is best in show, in my book), and Reeves, but Refn is the star. He almost seems to delight in making something this divisive, and that’s an interesting way to go about things. He won’t be winning over any new fans, but he likely won’t be losing any either. This is very much in keeping with the look and feel of Only God Forgives, his follow up to Drive, but your mileage may vary there, quality wise. There’s definitely an awards vehicle to be made by Refn one day, but currently he’s indulging all of his non commercial whims. That’s fine, obviously, but hopefully at some point he buckles down and blows us all away again.

Nicolas Winding Refn PR
Here’s how I would rank Refn’s filmography that I’ve seen so far:

1. Drive
2. Only God Forgives
3. The Neon Demon
4. Bronson
5. Pusher
6. Valhalla Rising

(I haven’t seen his Pusher sequels or a few of his other, smaller, works)

Basically, Refn is giving audiences something very unique on Friday. Depending on how you’ve viewed his recent work, this is either a warning sign or a way to excite you…perhaps even something in between. For me, Refn couldn’t put all of the pieces together, but when this one works, it really does. Drive remains far and away his masterpiece, but he’s a unique director, no doubt about that. The Neon Demon is just more evidence of his talent and how he follows the beat of his own drum. Honestly, I just can’t wait to see what he does next, and I know I’m not alone there…

Be sure to check out The Neon Demon, in theaters on a limited basis beginning this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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