One of the many striking things about Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, is how heavily it builds itself on the fusion of soundtrack and imagery. It is the first indication that we are in Only God Forgives or Valhalla Rising territory where static framing with and sonic force reign supereme, more-so than Drive or The Pusher Trilogy, although to be fair, both all of his films show a wonderful proficiency on setting a distinct rhythm to the storytelling.
The Neon Demon is a foremost a mood piece first. Refn’s fellow countryman, Lars Von Trier is fond of abstract filmmaking challenges informing his cinema, and here Refn seems to want to take one of the most blunt storytelling cliches, “Hey, the fashion industry sucks the life out models and turns human beings into sickly ghouls,” and the challenge is to apply such brilliant cinematic craft to the proceedings, like the make-up and gemstones constantly being brushed onto Elle Fanning’s visage, to make it appear more than what it is, even, and this is important, if the raw talent has always been there. With this film, appearances are not the goal it is the raison d’etre.
And through an delightful alchemy of influences – David Lynch, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento are all distinctly quoted – Refn not only pulls it off, he makes it look both inevitable and easy. It is as if the films glittery closing credits (highly reminiscent of the best of the James Bond title sequences, or David Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo opener) are saying, “Yea, all movies are made this way, aren’t they?”
Forgive the gushing, The Neon Demon was more than a bit of a balm after a pre-summer warm-up of sequels extruded at great cost with the aim mainly to tease for the next installment in the franchise. The few exceptions, Fury Road, Ex Machina and Chi-Raq, in isloation, serve as reminders that pop-entertainment does not have to be vanilla or focus grouped; it can be ghastly, challenging and visceral. Refn practices what he preaches, with all the one liners in the film espousing the theme of, ‘Everything worth having is worth a little pain.’ If the movie is pulling you out with its juvenile dares, stick with it, the back nine is a jaw-dropper. He is being both earnest and ironic such that down is up and up and down. To live in the recent films of this filmmaker is to live in a world that is too intense and too abstract to be real. In other words: Cinema. But unlike typical offerings from the dream factor, this is cinema where life lessons and morality (and definitely good taste) are un-tethered.
I wonder if this is what John Boorman was striving for with Zardoz before it collapsed under the kitschy weight of Sean Connery in a big red diaper and fuck-me boots? Refn borrows the prism of the mind sequence from that film, But I digress.
Back to the soundtrack. After two seasons of The Knick, Martinez’s retro-future-current-right-now jangle of electronic sounds and instruments haunts my dreams. I am not sure if the goal was for Vangelis-on-Ecstasy or KMFDM-on-Quaaludes, but it is somewhere in that space, and it sure hits the spot. Combined with the framed-tableaux cinematography – surely The Neon Demon started as a feature length expansion of that weird shot in Drive of all the fashion models motionless in their underwear in a weirdly lit nightclub that Ryan Gosling purposefully strides through – it is an immersive experience that transcends any semblance of Hollywood business-as-usual.