I enjoyed Bronson (2008), but I am a huge fan of Drive (2011) when it was released. I came very close to purchasing a scorpion jacket and looking completely ridiculous, but made do with driving round with Cliff Martinez’s iconic soundtrack on full blast instead. I was therefore really excited about Only God Forgives (2013) but found the violence in some scenes a bit gratuitous and over the top. If just the infamous torture scene had been toned down, and Ryan Gosling hadn’t reached right in to his dead mum’s stomach I think it would have been better for it. With The Neon Demon I felt Refn had done the same thing again. The film’s third act, as mental as it is, manages to have two scenes in particular that are so outrageous and bizarre that I just found them jarring and they took me out of the moment (It was very much: *rolls eyes* “Oh Nicolas, come on now…”). Maybe that’s what Refn was after, but I’m glad the film managed to save it and suck me back in. Looking at the reception the film’s had (a mixture of boos and applause at Cannes for one), it seems Refn’s latest is as divisive as ever. With this as well as Only God Forgives, I do believe that had Refn had some restraint with just those couple of scenes he could have had two more films as accessible and successful Drive was. You get the impression that isn’t what drives him though (dad pun joke intended), and he’s more than happy making films that he wants to see, so fair enough.
A common criticism of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films is an apparent focus on style over substance (as big a fan as I am, Drive’s story is hardly an original one). I would argue that when a film looks and sounds this good who cares, but in this instance the aesthetic drives the narrative as we too are as lost in stunning visuals as the characters. People can’t help but stop and stare at Jesse whenever she enters a room. She has a power of people she has never had to work for, and Elle Fanning is perfectly cast as the model with an aura of innocence everyone else can dream of (she’s certainly grown up from the little girl that stole every scene of Super 8!). Her and Jena Malone’s character, Ruby, go through the film’s most interesting character arcs, but it’s her wide eyed perspective and surprising ruthlessness to get where she needs to be that made this film for me. Refn loves picking actors to play against type (Albert Brooks in Drive was a genius move), and he’s done exactly the same here with Fanning.
As is now the norm, Cliff Martinez has put together another thumping score. It’s a lot more playback friendly than Only God Forgives’, and although I doubt it will have the longevity my Drive soundtrack, that says a lot more about the latter. It reminded me a lot of the It Follows (2015) score which was no bad thing, and contributed towards the haunting, horror themes of the film’s final act. Jesse is surrounded by multiple scary and daunting characters. Keanu Reeve’s motel owner is sinister to the core, culminating in a dream sequence ala Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe (2011) and it’s a shame he’s dropped entirely two thirds in. Jesse’s rival models (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) constantly throw death stares, looking this immediate threat to their livelihood up and down from afar. The film examines our obsession with beauty, and what success and dangers that can bring. There’s certainly a hint of a fairy tale theme towards the end of the film (witches searching for eternal youth etc), and I think you can make as big or small a deal of that as you like as. It may change on second viewing, but when I saw it yesterday I took some of those extreme third act scenes with a pinch of salt rather than as straight up black and white.
The Neon Demon has interesting characters and an intriguing narrative interspersed with incredible imagery, and picture perfect moments you want framed on your wall. It’s all layered with Martinez’s thumping soundtrack, caked in lipstick and glitter, and tied up in a neon bow. As I left the cinema the sheer madness of the final act, and those two scenes I’ve mentioned in particular were my lasting memory but having digested the film since, I haven’t stopped thinking about it for the right reasons. While Refn’s films certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste (there was only one walk-out when I went) I do feel that had he shown restraint with those two scenes we could have had another Drive on our hands.