It's been three years since Only God Forgives (2013), Nicolas Winding Refn's super-ultraviolent, neon-drenched follow-up to Drive (2011). Since then, his ability to mix a now trademark style with narrative sensibilities has improved. If Bronson (2008) -- Refn's fictionalised biopic of Charles Bronson (the infamous criminal) -- showed splatterings of his flashy, glittering style, and Drive saw him marrying it with a more rigid structure, then Only God Forgives feels like a strange link between those works and his latest, The Neon Demon.
His 2013 entry seems like a failed experiment in hindsight. At the time, I defended it from its critics who I suggested were missing the point; it was less accessible than anything he'd done before, but the film had a depth to its script that buoyed it throughout its aesthetic excesses. But whilst The Neon Demon shares DNA with Only God Forgives (a relentlessly seedy visual style, a pulsating synthetic Cliff Martinez score and only slightly less catatonic characters) there's clear signs here that Refn has corrected his path slightly. Perhaps I was wrong to jump to his defence three years ago. This time around the director has backtracked into Drive territory, laying on a similar helping of seductive imagery to cover a more flowing narrative. It's not as good as Drive, and it doesn't threaten to escape from Refn like the outlandish Only God Forgives, but it shows him exploring themes -- beauty, fame, murderous passion -- with more experienced hands.
To explain The Neon Demon's plot in any kind of depth is to do it a disservice, but some background is necessary. Jesse, exceptionally realised by Elle Fanning, is a sixteen-year-old model who heads out to L.A. to pursue a career in the industry. Almost instantly, she is taken in by several more 'experienced' models and is signed by a big-time modelling agency. But this is L.A., and although her new friends are seemingly infatuated by Jesse's natural, youthful beauty, they hide in their compliments shards of jealousy and bitterness. And so Jesse finds herself the object of a gaze far more sinister than that of the capitalist consumer. Her gift -- her beauty -- is her only talent, to use her own words, and there are people surrounding her who will stop at nothing to (quite literally) be her.
The real reward for the viewer is in their willingness (or sheer determination) to peer under the filthy veneer that Refn sets up. This isn't an easy film to follow, but there's a story there for the more in-tune spectator.
The Neon Demon's narrative works exclusively in imagery and sound, forcing dialogue (of which there's very little) into a peripheral role. Unlike Drive, there's little to no exposition here, and unlike Only God Forgives there's more of a craft to Refn's portrayal of events: he utilises his blues and pinks to establish mood, fills negative space wonderfully, and tells his story through music rather than characters. In one of the Blu-ray's extras, he emphasises the increased importance of Martinez's scores in his work. There's no pop culture built into the soundtrack here; instead, Martinez speaks for the characters: the music fluctuates between harshness, glamour and serenity perfectly, sometimes opting for all three at once. So, it's only apt that, in a film catatonic enough to suit Keanu Reeves, that musical accompaniment has such a high profile.
Such is the talent off-camera. Refn owes a lot to his DP, Natasha Braier, too. Briefed by the director to watch a selection of films ranging from Rosemary's Baby to A Clockwork Orange, Braier captures the cold dread of both these films in particular. Kubrick's cherished vanishing point is on show to give The Neon Demon a photographic feel at crucial moments -- it's a film about models, after all -- and the use of cinematic space by Polanski (through William Fraker's camera) is, as mentioned above, mirrored here and crucial to understanding Refn's film. There's also the same constant air of uneasiness about proceedings as well, which subtly enables the sinister subject matter to come to the fore.
If The Neon Demon makes little sense on paper, don't be alarmed. Even Braier, having read the initial script sent to her by Refn, was unsure whether to jump on board: "I said that I'd love to work with him," she recalls with IndieWire, "but I don't know what the movie is about." But it was the artistic connection she felt with Refn which enticed her in.
It's no different for the viewer. Here is a film full of false perfection: gorgeous, simmering music and lavish visuals, but limited comprehensible narrative points. But unlike its characters, it's not devoid of a persona. It has more to say than anything Refn has made before it, yet The Neon Demon's true beauty is almost entirely on the inside. You just need to do the work to see it.
For a film as gorgeous as The Neon Demon, the quality of the home release needed to be top notch to do the film's aesthetics justice. Fortunately, it is. Both the visual and sound quality on the Blu-ray version are fantastic. Martinez's pulsating score is enveloping just on the standard setting, but I'm sure experiencing it on the optional DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound setting would make it even better.
The extras are relatively disappointing on this one. There is, of course, the feature's trailer and an image gallery full of on-set photographs, but there is also two interviews: one with Refn and Martinez, and another with Refn and Elle Fanning. They're both short and relatively unremarkable but they do offer some interesting insight into a film that is quite difficult to pin down. I would recommend the interview with Refn and Martinez, in particular, where they discuss the role of music in the director's films. Other than that, there's really no incentive aside from the feature itself to explore the disc more.
The Neon Demon is visually and sonically gorgeous. Coupled with an intriguing descent into various themes, it's just enough to overcome the film's slender narrative. It won't be for everyone, but more engaged viewers should be rewarded.