With “The Neon Demon,” director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to have come to the end of a trilogy that began with “Drive” (2011) and continued through “Only God Forgives” (2013). The idea seems to be to take genre-flick styles — car action, revenge and horror — and unravel them to the point where they become pure sensation, almost abstractions.
“Drive” was more of a “normal” film, but even so, it was less about its Hollywood stuntman-by-day, getaway-car driver-by-night story than about the reverie of motoring through Los Angeles at night in a blur of shimmering neon and chrome to the sound of super-cool synthwave. “Only God Forgives” looked like a dive into Bangkok’s fight-club and go-go bar underground, but played out like a trippy internal exploration of the Oedipal urge, with star Ryan Gosling lost in its womb-like maze of red corridors.
And now we come to “The Neon Demon,” which is superficially about the fashion industry, its dog-eat-dog Darwinism and the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder — something that Refn makes nauseatingly literal by the last reel. While more coherent than “Only God Forgives” — and mercifully absent of that film’s sleepwalking-style performances — “The Neon Demon” is soaked in surrealism, more nightmare than narrative, as some sort of bastard witch-house hybrid of 1980s French cinema du look and Italian horror.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a wide-eyed, underage naif with the looks of a porcelain doll who’s come to LA with big dreams of being a model. She stays in a seedy motel with an even seedier owner (Keanu Reeves) and befriends Ruby (Jenna Malone), a make-up artist she meets at a test shoot with photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), who wants to hook up with her. Out clubbing with Ruby, she meets professional models Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee Kershaw, Bella Heathcote), who instantly catch the scent of new competition and turn up their bitch-faces.
Jesse’s agent (Christina Hendricks) lands her a photo shoot with a top photographer, which takes on an ominous ritual quality. Later, in an absolutely phenomenal piece of pure cinema , Jesse has her triumphant glitter moment on the catwalk, before falling into some sort of tranced-out communion with a strobing neon triangle. It’s the runway walk as 21st-century voodoo ceremony, with composer Cliff Martinez’ synth-driven score moving from glistening bliss to churning, queasy bass.
This is pretty “out there” cinema, and if the “blue box” scene in “Mulholland Drive”was too much for you, don’t even think about going there. Fans of the occult will have a field day; look for that Thaumaturgic Triangle to reappear subliminally throughout the film, even in the way the actors are positioned in a fateful scene in an empty swimming pool.
It feels like Refn was born in the wrong era, because he would’ve been a great midnight-movie maker back in the day. In the ’70s or ’80s, “Neon Demon” would have played well alongside cult films like “Eraserhead” or “Liquid Sky.” As a fringe movie, seemingly best enjoyed under the influence, it would have found its niche of freaks.
But with great stars come expectations: Fans of Fanning from “Maleficent” or Kershaw from her work as a Chanel model are in for a nasty surprise. The lack of exposition and bizarre plot twists will drive some people crazy, but Refn is simply imagining the vampiric nature of the fashion world as a literal coven of ghouls.
This is not a flawless film. Refn remains an imaginative filmmaker with the ability to create powerful fusions of sound and image; but, like his pal Gaspar Noe, he can’t seem to put it to the service of anything more than soulless violence and shock.
It’s no coincidence that of the three films in this “trilogy,” the strongest is “Drive,” and it is the only of the three that wasn’t written by Refn. He’s teetering on the brink of greatness; here’s hoping he gets there.