The Neon Demon takes its audience on a beautiful and dangerous journey with Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who begins to make a name for herself in the industry. Her beauty and youth soon attract the attention of a group of young women who will stop at nothing – and I mean nothing – to achieve success.
It’s all style and no substance is a description you’re going to hear – or have probably already heard – about Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest visual assault The Neon Demon, but is this entirely true? Absolutely not. Refn continues to tread that thin line between style and substance and is slowly, but surely, ensuring that his storytelling is as strong as his flair for visuals. The Neon Demon is still a victim of pretension and artificiality, but the film's grounding in a genre prevents it from being an entire showcase of visuals. The pure moments of horror are spectacular and Refn has an undeniable ability to shock and repel his audience with scenes that are remarkably grotesque. Without a doubt, The Neon Demon is more a feast for the eyes than a life-altering experience, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t depth to this flawed, dizzying and dazzling horror film.
As with Refn's many previous films The Neon Demon is another pot of slow-burning nightmares that eases its audience in tentatively before its boils, bubbles and explodes into a staggering, disturbing and, quite frankly, masterful finale. The initial build-up is an expectedly stunning one that is filled to the brim with overwhelmingly gorgeous neon (duh!) lighting and sets that are simply exquisite. Every single element of every single frame, shot and scene has been crafted to perfection to create an immediate sense of awe. Much like the way Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) gape at Jesse we, as an audience, will stare in admiration at the exquisite exterior of this killer world that Refn has so gloriously created.
Simply, that's the point; to have us gaze in wonder at what we're seeing for every second of The Neon Demon's run-time. This is perhaps, Refn's most self-aware feature as it pokes fun at an aspect that he and we, his fans, adore. Beauty; pure and simple. Rather than using a glossy exterior to hide a story that lacks coherence and meaning as with Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon's stunning visuals work as a way to create irony, awareness and even humour. There is darkness aplenty down in this Neon Demon's depths. It is deplorable, disturbing and difficult to watch in parts, but there is an unmissable and welcome dose of humour injected into the centre of its horrific outer shell, revealing a centre that revels in the tongue-in-cheek and embraces the necessity to have fun with its otherwise arduous subject matter. Lines that concern the importance of beauty (It's everything!), the praising of one's skin and the eating of our competition become hilarious as they are grounded in a reality that we can all believe in, because it is one that we witness every day. The Neon Demon is an ironic work of art; an advertisement that has nothing to sell, but a good hard look in the mirror.
Of course, nothing that The Neon Demon is preaching is new. From Starry Eyes to Videodrome and The Truman Show to A Clockwork Orange, films have and always will be used as gateways to voice controversial, candid and unpopular opinions on society and those who dwell within in. When it is at its most obvious The Neon Demon is a comment on our preoccupation with what's on the outside and our refusal to delve any deeper than the most superficial definition of beauty. It's a negative and mostly surreal presentation of celebrity culture, fame and obsession; a story with little else to say than it's bad. The Neon Demon cannot be commended for a refreshing take on familiar themes and concerns, because its representation is expected and unsurprising. However, when it is at its best, this film is one of the most astounding you've ever seen. One that refuses to conform to expectations of horror, Hollywood or films in general. It is something that is its hideously beautiful self. Refn's solid direction and clear vision mould a garish, but obnoxious film that is impossible to stop watching.
It's slow, shocking and wildly pretentious, but there is a lot to love within The Neon Demon. It is impossible not to praise its ludicrous, preachy and familiar story line, because the relentless descent from its fairy tale beginning to its hellish end is exciting and criminally satisfying. It's so wrong, it's right.