‘The Neon Demon’ – Film Review

A trademark film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn: moments of genius and madness

Drive, which had Ryan Gosling cruising around beating people up in a neon fog, didn’t actually do its director Nicolas Winding Refn many favours. It was a big hit – by far the biggest of his career – and well received, but Winding Refn doesn’t make films to be universally praised; he makes films to divide. Drive, with its coherent story and hit soundtrack, created expectation of more of the same. The Neon Demon is actually much more his usual deal, more in the vein of Bronson and Only God Forgives: more style than sense, moments of genius, many more of madness, refusal to compromise.

Broadly, it’s the story of Jesse, a teenage girl (Elle Fanning) who comes to LA to pursue a career as a model. Fresh and fragile as a newly picked daisy, she is quickly identified as something special, with plenty of people keen to exploit her, and Jesse not averse to letting them. That is perhaps to imply more plot than it gives. There’s little momentum to the story, with Winding Refn only offering enough set-up to allow him to play with a character as a cat might with a mouse, batting Jesse around curiously but with cool detachment.

Everyone who shows an interest in Jesse is fascinated by her blank innocence, gripped by a desire to somehow possess it and, by taking it, destroying it. Winding Refn is sort of the same. He just wants to watch her. Many scenes involve the camera simply staring at Jesse as she tries out new looks and experiences, or letting others project their fantasies on to her. It’s both extremely stylish and very creepy.

There’s little attempt to seduce the audience. It’s almost a horror movie, but only in the sense that you feel Jesse is constantly under threat. It doesn’t deign to do anything so commercial as trying to make you jump. There’s no real warmth to any of the characters, even its supposed heroine. It shows no desire to entice you in, but that aloofness, and some moments so dazzlingly strange that they startle you into alertness, make it as seductive as it is repellent. It’s hard to like, but not easy to ignore.