Whether you love his movies, hate his movies or were simply disappointed to discover that they aren’t all exactly like Bronson or Drive, there is one thing you absolutely have to say about director Nicolas Winding Refn: his films are really fucking pretty.
His attention to gorgeous composition, the incorporation of ethereal slow-motion and his stubborn willingness to let the camera linger on those things until he gets bored (and not, pointedly, until his audience does) makes Nicolas Winding Refn a frustrating filmmaker to critique. You are undeniably inside his meticulously crafted world, you are probably gobsmacked by how attractive it all is, but you’re not necessarily always invested what’s happening. Sometimes – and I’m looking at you, Only God Forgives – his love of lusciousness gets in the way of actually telling the damned story.
Fortunately for all of us, The Neon Demon is all about lusciousness. It is about beauty and superficial perfection. It is about pretentiousness itself and the high cost its pursuit can have on the human psyche. It is as perfectly suited to Nicolas Winding Refn’s sensibilities as just about any film could be: the style is also the substance, and neither is getting in the other’s way.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, an underage model who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. Her innocent appearance and flawless skin make her an instant success, landing her the type of dream jobs her aging “peers” actually have to work for. She is the newest sparkly in a world of rapidly dimming sparklies, and that makes her powerful, desirable, vulnerable, and maybe even kind of a horrible human being. And we watch as she succumbs to her own particular blend of ugliness, and we watch as others watch her and try to take ownership of her beauty, and we realize that something terrible is bound to happen to somebody in this disturbing and hypnotic world… eventually.
The Neon Demon is being marketed as a “horror movie” and a “thriller” because, indeed, something does happen that makes any other description seem misleading. The event(s) might be a shock to the senses, but it’s plain to see that the beautiful, slithering place to which Nicolas Winding Refn has invited us has always had fangs. Watching this film is like being trapped in a large room with a cobra, with nothing to distract you but the elegance of the venomous snake that, sooner or later, is going to attack. At that moment you will either feel catharsis, or horror, or both.
Opulence for its own sake is not exclusive to any artistic medium, and it is fascinating to watch a filmmaker who has been accused of this same sort of pretentiousness explore the ugly side of beauty. The Neon Demon is pretty because it has to be, and it is ugly because of course it is. It is a celebration of superficial loveliness and a punishing indictment of the type of people who are only superficially lovely. It is shallow and complicated. It is disgustingly beautiful and beautifully disgusting. It is brilliant filmmaking.
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Top Photo: Amazon Studios / Broad Green Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.