The Neon Demon/4 Palm Trees
by Eduardo Victoria
It’s fitting that so much of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is seen through mirrors, flashy reflective surfaces and blinding neon lights. All of these things present idealized, glossy versions of what’s on display, but remain fake reflections of the real thing. Herein lies the duality of Refn’s latest film; strewn against the glitz of an unforgiving Los Angeles, it’s a self-aware, ruthless look at vanity, narcissism and the transience of beauty, as told by a society that feeds off the young before quickly moving on to the next pretty thing.
16-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a new transplant to Los Angeles, untouched by its cunning society of vultures, yet with aspirations of fitting in and making it in the cutthroat modeling industry. It doesn’t take long for her to sign with a reputable agency, book a session with a sought-after photographer and make a few jealous enemies, but overall, she seems to be on the up. A local makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) reaches out to Jesse, offering a helping hand if ever needed, and giving her a few pointers to help keep her sane. Jesse quickly learns, however, that in the city of broken dreams and a profession that thrives on the superficial, nothing is ever what it seems – and that beauty comes with a price.
Acting as a sensory experience that explores ideas rather than just telling a simple story, the film’s images soak deep into our skin and transport us into Refn’s own warped world of excess and unsettling dehumanization. Natasha Braier’s stunning cinematography is the most important character, framing beauty which hides ugly intentions amidst glittered faces, neon-drenched compositions and women who resemble blood-drenched mannequins that get lost in or contrast with their stark surroundings (both literally and figuratively). Cliff Martinez’s disco score is the pulse that gives the film a perpetual rhythm, looking forward without any time to look back. The film’s third act goes violently literal, it drives home that he’s crafted an experience meant to be felt, luring us in seductively before shocking us into gleefully irreverent submission.
Cutting through the film’s dazzle is the doe-eyed Jesse, at first sticking out like a sore thumb, but soon coming to realize her worth and using it against her vicious detractors – she’s our entry point into this beautifully nightmarish world. Her transformation is one that celebrates and finds horror in the way that these women are complex contradictions, made up of relatable fears and strengths which are used to manipulate and control each other. Elle Fanning is an unlikely but fitting person for the role, giving it an innocence but also subverting expectations. Though she isn’t a character as much as she’s an avatar for Refn’s subconscious, she’s a magnetic presence, embodying the type of elusive vitality that every character in the film is trying to leach off of.
Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee and Jena Malone add to the film’s bite with a triptych of performances that personify its poisonous but seductive slant. Heathcote’s Gigi and Lee’s Sarah uphold a fierce exterior that feels as if it could crack at any second. There’s a ferocity to them but also an unmistakable fragility. It’s a fine line that they tread so well, and the film benefits from it. If there’s someone who steals the show however, it’s Jena Malone’s Ruby. She’s the hardest to pin down for the film’s duration; we’re instantly drawn to her kind nature, but can’t quite figure out her allegiances
A casual recommendation doesn’t work for this film, because it deliberately isn’t made for everyone. Even if you aren’t into it, what isn’t up for debate is Refn’s audacity in creating a primal reflection about the double edged sword of beauty and the cost of chasing a fleeting dream. Decadent and gorgeous but sharp and deadly, The Neon Demon is a transfixing experience that’ll be unlike anything else released this year.
Rated R. Viewed at Cinemark Downtown 10. 117 minutes.