One of the more exciting aspects of cinema is the way it functions as a storytelling tool. There’s not a single correct way to tell a story. If anything, focusing on a specific aspect of a film can create an altogether different experience from focusing on something else. Leave it to Nicolas Winding Refn to tell a story that’s been told countless times on screen – the rise of a newcomer – and by focusing on creating a hypnotic experience that shaves off all but the faintest outline of a plot, create something surprisingly thrilling.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16 year old girl new to the streets of LA, passing herself off as a 19 year old in order to make it as a fashion model. A fresh, natural beauty, Jesse manages to capture the attention of everyone around her – in good ways and bad. Among those drawn to Jesse are a group of veterans to LA’s fashion scene – makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who have interests in Jesse ranging from professional to personal. In each case, though, they’re clearly jealous of Jesse on some level, and it’s clear why. She’s signed by a top agent and selected for great gigs by photographers and designers with a ridiculous amount of ease. She’s young and innocent enough to make it look like it’s just happening – but Jesse seems just self-aware enough to know what’s going on.
Structurally, The Neon Demon is fascinating. The first half of the film is a slow introduction into this particular world, punctuated at times by the pulsing score and conversations that drip with dark comedy. It takes a while for the film to introduce the darker, more twisted elements of its story, with bits of horror subtly making their way into the story until the end – a conclusion that will leave audiences either enthralled or enraged. But The Neon Demon is less horror than erotic thriller, with its use of Jesse meant to clearly confound the audience. The film fetishizes Jesse, who – let’s remember – is 16, in a way that’s intentional in its desire to create discomfort.
To be clear: this isn’t a film for everyone. As a narrative, it’s decidedly straightforward, with plenty of time spent creating a heady atmosphere. As a visual experience, though, it’s a carefully created world meant for immersion, with plenty of dark surprises that are sure to generate a reaction. If that interests you, The Neon Demon is worth the view.