Beauty is everything. It’s a theme that runs red in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, exploring the dark side of desire and the obsession to have it all. It might be Refn’s most visually stunning film yet, radiating with breathtaking imagery in a surreal, nightmarish landscape. With its hypnotic and disturbing examination of self-vanity rearing its ugly head, Refn’s latest is a total force that unfolds like a fever dream. In it, when aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
As with most of Refn’s work, The Neon Demon is so much more than what’s presented on screen—its multi-layered narrative practically begs to be explored. Refn fans will already know what they’re getting themselves into, but for those that are put off by a story that forces you to read between the lines, it’s a tough movie to warm up to it. And part of that is because the film twists and turns like a dream—all of the pieces are there, but it doesn’t always make sense–so it can be frustrating at times, especially if you expect a more traditional story that force feeds you exposition.
Right away you get a sense of what Refn is going for in The Neon Demon, opening with an arresting shot of a girl covered in blood and sprawled out on a fainting sofa—it’s just one of many visual nods that drives the narrative forward, hinting at the story to follow. The way he allows the visuals to fill a silent space with Cliff Martinez’s score stirring in the background is often brilliant, further fueling the haunting ambience of The Neon Demon’s world. But because so much of the film is shot this way, it becomes dangerously close to feeling like it’s all style over substance, which is a totally valid argument. In fact, many reviews reflect that very sentiment. But to that I say, when the style is this goddamn good, it’s impossible to look away from—the narrative just drifts along, always one step back from Refn’s dream-like aesthetic.
The film’s fundamental theme shines a light on the obsession for perfection and the need to be desired. You have these girls who thought they had it all—everyone wanted what they had—but it quickly comes to an end when aspiring model Jesse shows up. The new girl is everything. Her beauty is contagious, attracting all of the best talent in town. They went from top to bottom overnight, seeing what they once had fall into the lap of a gorgeous young woman. So the film plays with that idea of hate driven by jealousy, only Refn injects it with a relentlessly unnerving style.
Scorched in red and blue, The Neon Demon puts these beautiful girls in an ugly world. And it’s one that quickly consumes Jesse, whose innocent elegance turns to empowerment as she flaunts her good looks at the very girls that despise them. It’s Refn’s way of building up the horror, and although it doesn’t come until the final act, it’s a masterfully crafted slow-burn that will leave your mouth on the floor. It’s another polarizing effort from Refn (like most of his filmography), but I found it to be altogether stunning. And this may not have been intentional, but the way it’s constructed—style over substance—reflects the very idea of the film itself, because much like its characters, The Neon Demon is hypnotized only by the beauty on the outside.
Audio Commentary with Nicolas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning — So much of Refn’s work is left to interpretation, so it’s wonderful to hear its creator talk about the film through his eyes. The commentary really digs into The Neon Demon’s themes, making it a must for Refn fans.
Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon — Not only does Cliff Martinez’s score drive the film, it’s one of the best soundtracks of the year. The behind the soundtrack feature is a great look at Martinez’s score and how it became an essential element to telling The Neon Demon’s story. He talks about how the music came together, its sci-fi feel, and how Refn pushed him to bring the music to the foreground. It’s really fantastic.
About The Neon Demon — This is basically a throwaway feature on the Blu-ray, which consists of the cast talking about the film.
You can pick up The Neon Demon on Blu-ray this September 27th.