I wouldn't really recommend The Neon Demon unconditionally to my friends; not because it's a bad film (quite the opposite) but because it's the kind of movie that would inevitably lead some of them to think "he told me to watch it and said it was great. What kind of freak could possibly like that kind of stuff?"
To call it "not for all tastes" is the understatement of the year, since the majority of audiences probably won't really appreciate its very droll mix of violence, cannibalism, dark comedy, necrophilia and fetishism. In fact, I will be very surprised if there isn't any condemnation or manifestation of outrage from groups or individuals arguing that it's yet another shallow male-directed film that objectifies, stereotypes and vilifies women. I'd also be willing to bet that Nicolas Winding Refn, who, like his fellow countryman Lars Von Trier, has a reputation for being a provocateur par excellence, had exactly this type of reaction in mind when he made it. There is a semi-gratuitous maybe-it's-a-dream sequence where a female character is forced to fellate a knife blade that seems designed precisely to elicit that sort of response.
Deliberate excesses aside, The Neon Demon is possibly Nicolas Winding Refn's most straightforward narrative in a while (certainly more linear than Only God Forgives or Bronson). The film follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old ingenue who moves to L.A. (or, to be exact, to a seedy motel in Pasadena, run by a sleazy and sinister manager played by a cast-against-type Keanu Reeves) hoping to become a model. Her naÃ¯vetÃ© and awkwardness notwithstanding, she first catches the eye of a powerful model agency head (Christina Hendrickson), then an influential photographer (Desmond Harrington) and finally a big fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) who casts her as the centerpiece of his new show, much to the chagrin of established models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who don't take kindly to being laid by the wayside to make room for a fresh new face.
She is also befriended by Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly well- meaning fashion make-up artist who moonlights at the local mortuary by applying her skills to make cadavers more presentable, and by an impossibly nice young man named Dean (Karl Glusman) who would like to be Jesse's boyfriend and protector. This being a horror film, at least on the surface, things starts to get weird for Jesse when her new friend and rivals decide to do something about her rapid ascent to the rank of top model. To say more would stray into spoiler territory, so I'll stop here.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Winding Refn is a master regurgitator of old genre films. "Drive" was the bastard son of Michael Mann's "Thief" and Walter Hill's "Driver", with a few other ingredients tossed in for good measure (the film also owed a huge debt to Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai"). "The Neon Demon" is his love song to Dario Argento (in particular "Suspiria", which is visually and thematically referenced multiple times) and to countless Euro-thrillers from the seventies, starting with the fantastic but little-seen (in the USA) Belgian lesbian vampire/Countess Bathory retelling "Daughters of Darkness".
Punctuated by a great electronic score by Cliff Martinez (which sounds like the best soundtrack that Goblin never wrote in the last 20 years), The Neon Demon is a visual feast that makes the neon- drenched "Drive" and "Only God Forgives" look almost drab by comparison. This is a gorgeous-looking film, set in beautiful locations, with a cast to match.
The women are all impossibly beautiful and incredibly shallow and repellent at the same time: they look and move like poisonous snakes whose skin you would really like to reach out and caress, knowing full well that you are likely to receive a painful bite. Male characters on the other hand are almost uniformly visually unpleasant and slimy or feral-looking (Desmond Harrington's photographer in particular looks gaunt and menacing like a wolf circling a wounded animal). Only Dean, the prospective boyfriend, seems like a good, decent human being, but this is a movie that seems hell-bent on confirming the old adage that "nice guys finish last".
Elle Fanning is good, especially at the beginning of the film where she is required to look shy and insecure -- in fact there are no weaklings in the whole cast. But the film belongs to Jena Malone, whose character undergoes the most startling transformation as the story progresses. Her performance is truly daring and committed and easily the most memorable in a film filled with weird and eye- catching characters. When you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Although The Neon Demon is ostensibly a horror film, underneath all the scary movie trappings lies a very black (and bleak) comedy about a superficial world where appearances are everything and the only way to survive is to embrace (quite literally) a dog-eat-dog attitude. It's most definitely not a movie for everyone (and the only film in recent memory where a scene involving an act of lesbian necrophilia doesn't feel gratuitous and out of place), but it's the product of a talented director who has completed a metamorphosis, which began with Bronson (2009), from "simple" genre filmmaker into full- blown auteur, with a personal and distinctive visual and narrative style. If you are at all interested in cinema beyond regular multiplex fare, it's definitely worth investing 2 hours of your time.