Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" took the world of cinephiles by storm. Although he was already a well established bizarro art-house director in small corners of cinema, "Drive" brought him to the center of the mainstream spotlight in so many ways. Refn has always defied categorization or easy genre affiliation, but his films following "Drive" seem to be the best examples of this as they have drawn the most ire from the majority of people who fell in love with minimalist action of "Drive." A lot of fans vehemently wanted Refn to stay in the accessible world of "Drive" and Refn stubbornly denied them this wish.
While I certainly think that "Drive" is Nicolas Winding Refn's masterpiece and it'll be quite hard for him to ever beat it, I couldn't be happier with his decisions to stick with defying what is expected of him, because in staying true to what makes Nicolas Winding Refn, Nicolas Winding Refn, he has given us one of the most beautifully horrific and nightmarish dreamscapes of the 2016 movie year with "The Neon Demon."
Lavishly awash in gorgeous neon colors and glossy design, "The Neon Demon" feels like a breath of fresh air visually after the claustrophobic dirt and grime of "Only God Forgives." By the way, that isn't a slight against "Only God Forgives." While I don't consider it his best film, I certainly think it's a worthwhile and fascinating movie that I'll defend against its countless detractors any day.
"The Neon Demon" has the look and feel of a feature length perfume advertisement, which is part of what makes its horror and violence that much more effective. After luring us in with gorgeous images, Refn grins and shoves us right into the middle of one of the best onscreen nightmares I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
Many accuse Refn of style over substance and making self-indulgent films that have little to no story. I'll also argue against this. The story of a starry-eyed girl who dreams of fame being swallowed up by the industry is certainly a tired one, but Refn's singular style is what gives this story the substance that makes it feel new all over again. The story of "The Neon Demon" certainly is sparse, but it is there, beautifully depicted through the various quirks and faults of the oddball cast of characters, some of the most delightfully weird people to ever appear in a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Along the edges of the frame are characters like Christina Hendricks' cold and calculated agent, or Keanu Reeves' scene-stealing sleaze ball hotel manager. At the center of the story are the four main characters played wonderfully by Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, and Bella Heathcoate. At the surface, there doesn't seem to be much going on in their faces, but just like Ryan Gosling's Driver, it's the little things going on underneath the surface that count. Small details like the twitch of Abbey Lee's lip or Elle Fanning trying to keep up with Jena Malone at a crowded fashion party say a thousand words about the characters depicted onscreen.
And just like any great Nicolas Winding Refn film, the imagery is some of the most fascinating you will see in a movie theater this year. Refn is a master of fully engaging atmosphere. At one point during the film I looked away from the screen and it really did feel like resurfacing from a deep dream before I plummeted back in. The icing on the cake of this atmospheric delight is Cliff Martinez's fantastic score, which is easily my favorite of his to date.
One of the best flourishes of the film is the style that the credits take on, giving them the look and feel of fashion advertising (also mentioned above), going as far as to even brand the film with an NWR signature, as if Refn was a Marc Jacobs of movies. This is indicative of what makes Nicolas Winding Refn such an important filmmaker. No matter what shape or form his films take. they will always undeniably be the brand and product of one strange and glorious brain.