Following up on the polarizing “Only God Forgives,” director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a movie that’s bound to split audiences just as much as the unconventional revenge thriller starring Ryan Gosling. “The Neon Demon” is a beautiful, hypnotic nightmare that goes to some comical, horrifying and unexpected places – places not all audiences are understandably willing to go.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved to Los Angeles, but not to be a star like most people. Though the teenage girl’s past is a bit of a mystery, it’s obvious she’s always had to survive on her own. Even when Jesse starts to find some success in the modeling world, she’s still fighting to survive. Being the new girl on the scene and finding success so quickly, she makes enemies with fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are less taken with young Jessie than their friend, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). For the most part, Jesse is on her own in these cruel environments – whether in an off-putting nightclub, a photo shoot or a crappy motel – and surrounded by even crueler characters that want to devour her beauty.
Upon first viewing, Jesse’s journey doesn’t add up to much. The film, which Refn co-wrote with Marry Laws and Polly Stenham, relies more on atmosphere than plot, but the story isn’t as thin as it initially appears. There is a purpose to every scene and shot in “The Neon Demon,” and they’re always serving Jesse’s story. When a mountain lion trashes the teenager’s room, it seems random at first glance, but it’s a key piece of foreshadowing of what’s to come. Even a sequence that features two of the main characters showering together, which easily could’ve been laughable or gratuitous, reinforces the story Refn is telling – a story about animals.