First off, if you are in a place where you can see this underrated gem of a movie, please, please, please, please, please see it in a theater. It is hard to imagine that this movie will be liked by many due to the pure creepiness of its all around story.
Nicolas Winding Refn is most familiar to mainstream moviegoers (maybe) for a low(er) budget, `80s(?) period piece, Drive (2011), starring Ryan Goslin as a stuntman with a moonlighting gig gone awry. Refn teamed up with Goslin again in the 2013 disappointment, Only God Forgives. Although Only God Forgives looked phenomenal and had an eerie setting and tone throughout that kept me entranced, the sluggish pacing detracted from what could have been a great film.
Some of Refn’s earlier works, such as Pusher (1996) and Bronson (2008), gave proof to his skills as a writer and director. The claustrophobic, in-your-face cinematography of Pusher presented a gritty underground clad in eerie lighting — a signature play that Refn employs in all the films I have seen. Bronson allowed Tom Hardy to play the portrait of pure insanity, a role which catapulted him into rising star status, and probably should have garnered him Academy Award notice had the members of the Academy not had their heads up their asses — a tradition continued into the present.
The Neon Demon, Refn’s latest film, is a psychological thriller turned nightmarish mindfuck of a film that is both beautiful and terrifying. Refn loves to use neon; it fits his films well. He likes neon so well, he included it in his title. It not only feels like an homage to David Lynch, Dario Argento, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann, and many others, but it is definitely an homage to neon. Glorious neon.
And it works so effectively.
Elle Fanning, the next big acting phenom for the decades to come, plays Jesse — a naive outsider drawn in to world of high-class modeling. Other than her unique natural beauty, she is a complete stranger in an even stranger land of dark artistry, sexual deviance, and worship of dark idols marked by lust, betrayal, and jealousy.
Jena Malone is Ruby — a somewhat struggling make-up artist for various photo shoots by day, and a funeral make-up artist by night. Malone delivers what may be the strongest performance of her career. Ruby is seductive and passively manipulative. Her core group of friends are catty and completely obsessed with making it in the modeling business. Ruby sits as leader in the midst of this dark “Clueless-esque” clique.
There are so many great things one can say about a daring film like this one, especially in the midst of such a horrible summer movie schedule. His commentary on the politics of entertainment, the sordid underground that twists and molds its masses into anxiety-ridden monsters, and the mysterious flashes to the illuminati — or the horrors that lie beneath — is absolutely amazing. This movie surpasses most of Refn’s filmography, and gives hope for more visual masterpieces by him in the future.