Nicolas Winding Refn is a director whose work film fans love to watch. His frames are rich and compelling, his characters are fascinating, and his ability to orchestrate every element, aspect and detail of a production to create his unique vision is formidable, to say the least. For these reasons, his next film has been the focus of much anticipation – which will only increase now that distribution has finally been secured. Audiences will now get to see The Neon Demon in 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios.
This development places The Neon Demon among a number of titles – including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, and Chi-Raq – at the forefront of the ongoing tussle between the ‘traditional’ theatrical release model, and the evolving modernised release model that is emerging through the growth of streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon. While The Neon Demon is apparently scheduled for an initial release in cinemas, its availability through Amazon Prime Instant Video is said to be designated as ‘early-window.’
The film is co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws – who makes her screenwriting debut. Plot details are sketchy, but The Neon Demon is characterized as a horror film, which focuses on a young woman named Jesse, played by Elle Fanning. Jesse has ambitions to become a professional model, and moves to Los Angeles to pursue her dream. That dream becomes nightmarish, however, as a band of women – obsessed with beauty – feast upon her youth and vitality, stopping at nothing to possess what Jesse has. Joining Fanning is an all-star cast, featuring Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Jamie Clayton, Abbey Lee and Alessandro Nivola.
In discussing the inspiration for the film, Nicolas Winding Refn explained to the press that a moment of realization about his own life led to The Neon Demon.
“One morning I woke and realised I was both surrounded by and dominated by women. Strangely, a sudden urge was planted in me to make a horror film about vicious beauty.”
This comment is particularly interesting in the context of the filmography of Nicolas Winding Refn, and the way in which women have featured within it. Historically, the filmmaker’s stories have tended to employ the age-old ‘woman-as-plot-device’ trope – in which a supporting female character of significance to the male lead propels the action, and motivates him within the narrative. The Pusher Trilogy, Bleeder, Fear X, Drive, and Only God Forgives all follow this pattern to varying degrees. The exceptions, perhaps, are Valhalla Rising – which barely features any women at all – and Bronson, which is a brilliant examination of ‘celebrity culture’. This makes The Neon Demon interesting because, most significantly, it is the first Nicolas Winding Refn film to be led by a woman, and also, it would appear to be his second look at the evils of that ‘celebrity culture’ he examined in Bronson.
Those things that make it interesting, however, also give cause for concern – and that concern raises three questions about this project. Firstly, will the story go far enough into the issue of this “vicious beauty”, and actually skewer the real cause behind it – which is a thoroughly sexist society perpetuated by mainstream media? Secondly, if the film fails to get to the very core of the issue, doesn’t that leave it as yet another movie in which women are pitted against each other, enabling the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’? Thirdly, aren’t we lucky that so many male filmmakers are miraculously and magically able to find financing and distribution for films that tell us what it’s like to be a woman? These questions will be answered when The Neon Demon is released by Amazon Studios in 2016.