Talking Movies

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

the-neon-demon

Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

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September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

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