Have your cake, eat it, and then throw up because you look like a pig.
Modelling is truly the Refn film’s compeer; people are ornamental, violence is sex and vapidity is substantive. The film’s ethereal L.A., guttural and glittering, finds itself somewhere in-between the arterial urbanism of Drive and the neon-drenched dank and fatalism of Only God Forgives: a lurid wonderland of rapacious wolves and fresh golden sheep. Its narrative velocity is just as medial. The story moves forward with a more accessible pace and purchase than OGF, but waits far longer to blow its gruesome load than Drive. The narrative momentum pays off, however, giving Refn’s autonomic aesthetics more credence, and his characters more to show us, to give us and present us with, and so more to be invested and involved in. It also helps that the characters are characters, rather than glorified symbols. There’s a mystery to the film, about who these people are and what they want- what they are; if they’re even people, if they’ve pushed themselves past that definition, been pushed past it, or always been outside it- that is genuinely engaging and that envelopes and corroborates the visual and aural tension of the first two-thirds.
Elle Fanning’s virginal lamb, Jessie, is the quietly captivating heart of The Neon Demon, and a big one at that. Fanning moves and talks with a slow confidence that more than matches the acute aura of Ryan Gosling’s stoic driver and emotionally arrested drug-dealer Julian. Jessie is every bit of every smile, every glance and every slow word, and is everything that the film’s agents and photographers make her out to be. It is rare for a character to actually have that same allure for the audience; the stunning woman is usually not as stunning as the script thinks she is, as casting could get her, or as the characters around her fawn and scramble to reify. But Fanning is. This isn’t Goldie. We’re not just told that she’s different; she is different. We don’t just have to buy that she’s captivating; she is, and she captivates us. She really is the something else that everybody says she is, and I look forward to seeing what she does next, because I think it could be a lot.
Overall the supporting cast is solid, with Keanu Reeves’ sleazy motel manager and Karl Glusman’s boy next door with a fast car and a heart of gold being the two big standouts. Jena Malone should be commended for a committed performance, but maybe not a good one. The same goes for Heathcoate and Kershaw; it’s great that they’re willing to work with challenging material, but it would be better if they could live up to it. All three women were stiff and difficult, and as the film progressed, it became more and more apparent that they couldn’t hold a scene without Fanning. Every minute of screen-time Refn gave them was just another opportunity to lose believability and substance. Which is ironic.
Cinematographer Natasha Braier brings a fresh set of eyes and ideas to the visuals that help Refn top himself yet again. In terms of aesthetics, Refn is unmatched by anyone working today. Composer Cliff Martinez’s third successive collaboration with Refn is an icy, aortic melange that pounds and throbs with tension and psychosexuality, knowing when to recede and when to explode. The script, too, is a huge step up from the rather clunky two pages that Refn scribbled out for OGF. The film consistently nails the careful tonal balance between drama and absurdity; it stays serious enough to make meaning, but self-aware enough to keep out of its own arse.
But then, on the homestretch, it lets itself down.
Maybe I just knew too much about what was coming; the hyperventilating Cannes press had already robbed me of my ignorance before I had a chance to hit the cinema (scratch that- before the film was even on general release) something which was compounded by scaremongering BBFC press releases and obnoxious Daily Mail empty-head-lines. But, then again, maybe I’m just being generous- maybe it was just silly shocksploitation with illusions of grandeur. Well there wasn’t anything grand about the last forty-five minutes; I can tell you that now and save you the hassle of wondering when you’re sitting there.
And you should be sitting there, because despite where it ends up, the meat of the movie is actually pretry special. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it, and if you love cinema, I think you have a duty to make sure that you do, and to support a filmmaker who is doing his damnedest to bring us something better and something different. Don’t let the press nanny you into Absolutely Fabulous and don’t let the cynics tell you it’s pretentious; I mean, it is, but that’s half the fun, right?