Provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is back with “The Neon Demon”

The divisive, Danish-born auteur's latest provocation is set in the glamorous, dangerous world of high fashion models.

“Great cinema is really all about what you don’t see.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn told me this last year when I interviewed him for the release of The Act Of Seeing, a collection of more than 300 posters, curated by Refn, of exploitation rarities, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, all featured in a heavy, gorgeously-rendered hardcover tome. Or as he gleefully admits, “a very expensive book, but about trash.”

His love of artsy trash cinema and subliminal imagery continues with “The Neon Demon,” a new film that could fit right alongside the aged, forgotten titles from his book. Elle Fanning stars as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. The film, though it was initially touted as his first real foray into horror, is, of course, anything but a traditional entry in the genre. “Don’t believe everything you read. Traditional… come on man. My films are like Christmas, you can’t wait to open it,” he elaborated. “And one thing’s for sure, what you expect I’m not going to give you. That’s what makes life so much more fun.”


Give ‘Only God Forgives’ a chance, its brilliance will reveal itself

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's latest is nightmarish, but worth the challenge


Ryan Gosling in “Only God Forgives”

Try to cut through the advance negativity on “Only God Forgives.” The latest moody crime film by Nicolas Winding Refn probably won’t have the mainstream crossover appeal of his last film, “Drive,” which became something of a cult sensation. In fact,  at the press screening last week, I heard several critics call it the worst film they’ve seen this year so far. Comments like these are confusing.

“Only God Forgives,” while light on story, is one of the most fascinating, strangely thrilling and gorgeous films of this year. It should not be missed while it’s still in theaters in Portland (Hollywood Theatre and Living Room Theaters are the only game in town screening it). In a perfect world, this would play for months in theaters, having a chance to find an audience. That’s probably not going to happen, so see it on a the big screen as soon as possible.

Ryan Gosling re-teams with Refn after their first collaboration on “Drive,” and if you thought his character in that film was quiet, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. He plays a drug dealer and owner of a Thai boxing club, and after his morally bankrupt older brother is murdered,  his sadistic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, having fun vamping it up in a show tour de force performance) demands that pursue some good old-fashioned revenge. But then he runs into an unstoppable agent of pure evil/justice/good. Complicated.

Images do most of the story telling in “Only God Forgives.” Refn relies on silence for effect, demanding the audience to meet the film halfway and to come at it from its particular point of view. Challenging though it may be, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Cliff Martinez’s score, for example, ups the atmosphere and sense of foreboding dread. When the film’s major set piece comes along—a brutal fight that’s been bubbling to the surface as the thin plot kicks in—the track that nearly melts the theater speakers, appropriately titled, “Wanna Fight,” is an amazing reinvention of ‘80s era horror synth music.

This fight, between Gosling and his nemesis, known as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, a new acting discovery). Pansringarm is simply wonderful as the mythical police officer who metes out his own particular brand of justice. Seemingly more deity than man, Chang likely will not meet audience expectations, but in their fight scene the film’s aims become much clearer, the moment when all of the brewing subtext comes to the fore.


Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang, using his tool of justice

For fans of Refn, the big thing to know going in: this is not “Drive 2.” Not even close. It’s more like the nightmarish offshoots of “Drive”’s subconscious, re-appropriated for those open to something different. Many people and other critics will tell you this film is no good. They are wrong, or at least not giving the film any credit. It may seem odd as a followup to “Drive” (Refn eschews any aspirations for box office success wholeheartedly), but examine this very talented filmmaker’s career and you’ll see how “Only God Forgives” works as a thoughtful meditation on the consequences of a cycle of violence, and as a commentary on many of his films to date.

Look at all his films leading up to “Only God Forgives,” starting with his excellent debut “Pusher” in 1996 all the way through to “Drive,” which put Refn on the map at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (where he went on to win Best Director at the festival amid near unanimous glowing reviews for the film). It would be too easy, but not entirely inaccurate, to classify Refn as a genre deconstructionist in the vein of Quentin Tarantino. Though the directors share a similar anti-authoritarian view of the world, an eye for brutal and beautiful violence, and a love for all things cinema, Refn’s a singular, fantastic filmmaker on his own right.


Gosling with Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of “Only God Forgives”

“Only God Forgives,” if you’re able to give yourself to its peculiar sensibility, proves that enjoying a film takes on multiple forms, and some require more work from the audience to appreciate. It’s worth the effort.


Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #72, features a review of “Only God Forgives” and AYT #8 features a full rundown of Refn’s career to that point.


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