By Darin Skaggs
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a beautiful, haunting masterpiece. It takes on the concept of beauty, specifically the beauty of women. It takes a look at what it is to be beautiful, how that is damaging in itself. It also explores those who are told they do not reach the perfect beauty and how some are desperate to find it by any means necessary.
The film has that meditative slow burn style that Refn is known for. It has more plot than his last effort, Only God Forgives, not much more plot though. In the film a young girl, Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves into Los Angeles to become a professional model. She does not have much going for her; her parents seem to be dead; she is under aged with no other known family and does not know anybody in the city as well. The one thing she does have going for her is that she is told she is perfect, beauty wise. The big shots in the modeling industry know it, the other jealous girls she meets know it and her sweet, patient love interest knows it. The only person that does not know it is her, at least for the first half of the film. When we know she does figure it out it is a simple moment, but somehow one of the most shocking in the film. All that happens is a triangle figure that is being zoomed in and out on changes color. An odd statement, but in context it is one of the more powerful moments in the movie. It is there we know that our protagonist has changed and it is all downhill for everyone involved from that point forward.
The visuals are absolutely amazing. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier always find the perfect shot for every frame. They know just where to put Jesse in the shot, they know the perfect light for each scene to give off the sense of dread we are constantly feeling. At times they even linger on shots that they know they have perfected because they know it could make a great painting or such. That could sound pretentious and honestly it is. There is a scene in a club where Jesse and her new “friends” are watching some sort of performance. There is a constant of flashing lights as it cuts to the reaction shots of the amazement that Jesse feels and what looks like a man jumping into the air in slow motion. The film is big headed, full of itself and really pretentious. The only thing keeping it from being too much is that it is intelligently handled, beautifully shot and fully realized as well.
Fanning nails her performance as Jesse. At times it feels like she is acting poorly, but that is the nature of her character; lost, confused and incredibly insecure. And that is how she plays it. The change she experiences half way through the film makes her more confident and snooty. Her performance shows how much she has changed and gives off the knowledge of the amount of power she holds. Everyone in this film is brilliant, Keane Reeves plays the hotel manager where Jesse is staying and it is pretty great. The jealous models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) play their roles well, you can feel the sadness from the fact that they know they will never be viewed as perfect, body wise. Ruby (Jena Malone) is Jesse’s, and cadavers, make up person that takes a big interest in Jesse.
The film is fairly normal for a Refn film, which is still really strange. That is until the last third of the film after denying love to a certain character a revenge plot takes action. This is where the movie takes the phrase “It’s what is on the inside that counts” to a whole new level. The movie is infatuated with all the horrors of being a woman. It explores all the jealously of being beautiful or not having enough beauty according to authority figures in the business. It looks at the harmful effects of others having such awful opinions. It also looks into the male gaze and the fear that come with that. Jesse has a very disturbing dream that deals with the fear of being violated or just watched when she is not aware of it. The movie never announces that she has these fears, but the dream and a metaphorical mountain lion lets us know that it has always been under the surface the whole time. Refn has made the perfect movie about the horrors of beauty.