Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is a provocateur. Even his most mainstream film, “Drive” (2008), starring Ryan Gosling, is a deliberate exercise in twisting the audience’s expectations, turning what at first glance seems like a simple crime thriller into a slow meditation on justice.
His most recent film, “The Neon Demon” (2016), starring Elle Fanning, continues with this divisive but immediately recognizable style. The film tells a familiar story: Jesse (Fanning) is the classic small-town young girl who arrives to Los Angeles full of hope and ready to conquer the world of modeling, only to find that something dark hides behind the bright facade of Hollywood.
This known template becomes something else in Winding Refn’s hands. Half neo-noir fairytale, half horror thriller, “The Neon Demons” takes advantage of Natasha Braier’s photography to paint a decadent and obsessive Los Angeles, where beauty “isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
The film opens with a striking image that summarizes its themes: Fanning in a blue dress, leaning on a couch, covered in blood which drips to the floor. Beauty and violence intermingle while in the distance a man silently takes photographs.
Characters bring up Fanning’s (apparent) innocence again and again: “That whole deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want,” an experienced model tells her. Winding Refn suggests that it is that same innocence which allows her to be used as a sacrifice to the cannibalistic Los Angeles fauna she encounters: a hardened modeling agent, a narcissistic fashion designer and a makeup artist who hides her true intentions behind a mask of friendship.
But the director manages to twist this up. Fanning’s character begins to feed off those who seek to take advantage of her and becomes almost goddess-like. In that same process, transfigured during a hallucinogenic sequence by what may be the titular demon, she loses her humanity.
Starting with “Drive,” Winding Refn has developed a new and unique filmic style which some have called a revival of the visual topics of the 1980s, with highly contrasted photography, an abundance of neon colors and electronic, hyperactive soundtracks. “The Neon Demon” continues this trend, but has interesting additions such as the use of almost natural lightning during outdoor scenes, creating an arresting contrast between the gaudy lightning of interior scenes, which owe much to Dario Argento’s style of the late 1970s.
The soundtrack, by regular Winding Refn contributor Cliff Martínez, is full of discordant synths and electronic drones reminiscent of classic Goblin scores.
“The Neon Demon” is perhaps Winding Refn’s most risky proposition so far. Sparsely plotted but visually wonderful, it will not leave anyone indifferent.