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The Neon Demon Is A Nightmare Worth Having

If you were a David Lynch fan in the ’90s, you probably remember being irritated by the critical establishment’s disdain for films like Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway. While all three have come to be regarded as essential Lynch films, their initial reception was far less positive. Filmgoers have always had a knee-jerk intolerance for surrealism, which may explain why so many critics are resisting Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Partly under the mentorship of Alejandro Jodorowsky (another distinguished cinematic surrealist), Refn has developed a daring disregard for literalism, immersing viewers in an evocative state that is equal parts nightmare and hallucination. Like hallucinogenic drugs, The Neon Demon will only appeal to those willing to leave the safe predictability of everyday life behind. For die-hard horror fans bored by the conventionality of The Conjuring 2, this is a refreshing visit to the opposite end of the horror spectrum, a world of endless possibility where no taboo is off limits.

With 2011’s Drive, Refn found a substantial mainstream following, but rather than continue in that direction, he saw that film’s success as permission to take new risks—and with good reason. Drive’s relatively conventional narrative appeased literalists, but the film’s real triumph was Refn’s newfound confidence as a filmmaker, boldly relaying the inner lives of his characters with heightened cinematic flourishes. With The Neon Demon, he applies that sensibility to roughly every sequence, replacing traditional narrative with an intricate dream logic that makes for an unusually open-ended, thought-provoking experience, one that has many virtues in common with Refn’s breakthrough film.

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In other words, you can forget the elaborate suspense narrative you probably imagined while watching the trailer, as The Neon Demon offers narrative-minded viewers little more than a premise. It revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old orphan who has just arrived in Los Angeles to pursue a career in modelling. Hungry for untainted beauty, the fashion world is instantly transfixed by this young woman, inspiring the jealous animosity of her potentially dangerous peers. While the events that follow may be difficult to recap in a post-movie conversation—and the abrupt, flippant conclusion sells the preceding 100 minutes short—those who are open to Refn’s dream-like approach should have no trouble feeling their way through the experience.

Fortunately, the film’s slim narrative offers Refn several luxuries, including the opportunity to devote more attention to his characters. While he makes little effort to explain their psychological makeup, their behaviour is consistently intriguing, surprising, even shocking. As the film’s young ingénue, Elle Fanning is a standout, drifting through a wide range of emotional states. As her occasionally friendly rival, Jena Malone goes to some altogether bizarre places, taking another step toward the more prominent career that has unfairly eluded her. The men in the cast are wisely relegated to the margins, but they still make a strong impression. In a glorified cameo—that gives the film some of its most Lynchian moments—Keanu Reeves is uncharacteristically hostile, resulting in at least one massive laugh. Even more memorably, Alessandro Nivola steals most of his scenes as an arrogant fashion designer and Desmond Harrington fuels one of the film’s most unsettling sequences: a surreal photo shoot that’s both dangerous and seductive. In fact, that hybrid describes most of The Neon Demon. (If this was a generic ’90s thriller, its title might be Dangerous Seduction.)

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Memorable performances notwithstanding, the real star of The Neon Demon is Cliff Martinez, the virtuoso electronic composer who has scored roughly half of Steven Soderbergh’s films, as well as Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives. Featured prominently through most of the film’s running time, his score complicates Refn’s rich, fetishistic imagery—including the bloodiest group shower scene since Carrie—and places the viewer in a kind of hypnotic state. The film also features striking work by cinematographer Natasha Braier, production designer Elliott Hostetter, and costume designer Erin Benach, making for an intensely aestheticized experience. This will inevitably fuel charges of style over substance, but for someone with Refn’s command of the medium, style is substance—his images come loaded with emotion, suggestion, and dramatic impact. Though The Neon Demon is ultimately a little messy and unfocussed, that’s a small price to pay for a jolt of cinema this intoxicating and original.

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