George Miller made one of the wiser decisions in modern film history when he recognized his limitations in the feminism department and brought Vagina Monologues scribe Eve Ensler on as a consultant to his franchise-rebooting summer smash Mad Max: Fury Road. Nicolas Winding Refn, always a willing collaborator (in one of many examples, he let Bryan Cranston write his own death scene in Drive), has done one better and co-written his latest film, The Neon Demon, with the talented Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and the results are nothing short of stellar. The work is a grim meditation on society’s focus on beauty, spiked with unease, biting humor and a story that may well be Refn’s most fully realized. In the wrong hands, this material could easily play as misogynist fantasy (something we already have an abundance of in Hollywood), but here the writers have stuck the landing on crafting a surprising and clever tale that reveals its intent slowly while satirizing our surface obsessions with almost limitless style. In the dog eat dog world of the fashion industry, Refn has found the perfect metaphor for how chasing the ideal of beauty at all costs can devour us whole.
Speaking of style, the visual variety is Refn’s calling card, and he’s outdone himself with The Neon Demon. Applying his Kubrickian pristine framing and penchant for Lynchian dreamlike interludes to an industry based entirely on how things look, the director has crafted a near-flawless playground for his considerable talents. Even better, it’s not mere eye candy—there is purpose and progression to every image he shows us, and within those images is some of the strongest work he’s drawn from his actors to date. Each raised eyebrow, pregnant pause or quick sigh is loaded with meaning, and you won’t find a bad performance from any member of the cast. Not to say the likes of Elle Fanning and Jena Malone simply gaze at each other for the duration; Refn and his co-writers have come up with some of the most stinging dialogue you’ll hear at the movies this year, sometimes uproarious and often sharp as a razor. Nods to other genre films abound, from the older likes of Repulsion and The Hunger to more recent additions to the canon such as Under The Skin and The Witch, yet the film very much stands on its own two perfectly sculpted legs. And in keeping with a current delightful trend of 80s-style synthesized scores, collaborator Cliff Martinez turns in some of his best work.
I’ll avoid diving into any great detail on the story, because to discuss it would be to rob the experience of its building momentum and payoffs. Fanning is a simple waif from the south named Jesse who’s deposited herself in a seedy Los Angeles motel with dreams of modeling superstardom; as she points out to the lone sympathetic male character in the movie, she’s never been good at anything, but she’s always been pretty. With an almost vampiric relish, everyone who enters Jesse’s orbit obsesses over her innocent beauty and either tries to claim it for themselves or resents it with feverish jealousy. She quickly rises through the ranks of the modeling world, growing in experience and ego, seemingly supercharged by the attention and desires of all around her. Where her powers lead her is the business of the third act, of which I will say little although those who find the first two more or less devoid of the R in Refn will be glad to hear that the last 10 minutes generated more walkouts at the screening I attended than any other I’ve ever been to, so patience will be rewarded–depending on your definition of reward, that is. While the male characters are, with one exception, generally vile, this movie is squarely focused on women’s relationships with each other and how the ever elusive ideal of physical perfection shapes them, frequently for the worse. The Neon Demon, bitter, beautiful pill that it is, may be Refn’s finest work to date.