Sympathy for the Demon – Nicolas Winding Refn blurs the lines of narrative filmmaking


neon-demon-2Preston Barta // Editor

In the freewheeling world of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, characters don’t simply get from A to B, they travel in all different directions

Refn has a way of taking audiences to often dark and unsettling places. Just look at his 2011 film DRIVE, starring Ryan Gosling, for example.

What started as a blockbuster on the same level as the FAST & FURIOUS films soon got a NWR overhaul. The safe storyline was built upon with a healthy dose of wonder and romanticism that drove off the screen and into the hearts of many.

With a diverse filmography that includes titles such as the PUSHER trilogy, FEAR X and VALHALLA RISING, it was DRIVE that hammered the bullet into studio’s heads. It only seemed natural that Refn would be swept in by Hollywood’s glitz and glamour.

Refn even flirted with the idea of going mainstream with floating concepts that consisted of a remake of 1976’s LOGAN’S RUN and a Christina Hendricks-starring WONDER WOMAN. However, Refn didn’t want to be consumed by the industry.

Instead, Refn continued down his own distinct path, creating offbeat features in 2013’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES and this week’s release of THE NEON DEMON.

Elle Fanning is Jesse, a young model chasing fame in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Elle Fanning is Jesse, a young model chasing fame in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

THE NEON DEMON is a peculiar film that’s difficult to nail down. To put it simply, it concentrates on an aspiring model’s journey towards making it big in an industry that swallows you whole, only to spit you out.

Does the film’s notion of the fashion business allude to Refn’s own feelings of the film business?

It’s difficult to decipher. Refn is no stranger to dipping his toes into the pool of ambiguity and promoting conversation. He’s not particularly concerned with conventional storytelling. Whether the outcome of his films is good or bad is irrelevant in the eyes of Refn.

“A reaction means it penetrated your mind,” Refn said, when we rang him up during a press day in New York. “I approach everything as if I was an entity wanting to see it. Not understanding it, but seeing it. NEON DEMON is meant to be taken anyway you want, because that’s when art becomes interesting.”

Audiences’ reactions will likely be just as mixed as critics. Wherever your feelings lie after exiting the theater, there’s one indisputable fact you’ll recognize: You won’t ever forget it.

“The origin of the story was I wanted to make a horror movie about beauty,” Refn said. “The original script didn’t really look like much of anything. It was a process of evolution.”

Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee star in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee star in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Refn is all about discovering the truth, beauty and horror in the bizarre. Whether it’s images of a character soaking in a blood-filled bath or a fashion designer displaying sexual urges towards an underage model, Refn knows how to cause an uproar.

“I don’t consider myself much of an analytic filmmaker,” Refn said. “I try to pose everything like I’m an infant drawing a picture. I never have a go-to place. I guess it’s the voyeurism that becomes titillating to me.”

When asked about when he adopted this philosophy, Refn replied with his 2008 film BRONSON, starring Tom Hardy as U.K.’s most violent prisoner.

“That was a time that I was beginning to make films that were purely based on my own fetish,” said Refn. “What it all comes down to is singularity.”

After BRONSON, Refn began to dive deeper down the rabbit hole. This even showed in his adult poster book THE ART OF SEEING that was released just last year.

“My wife [Liv Corfixen] found the book to be very degrading,” quipped Refn. “She feels it represents everything that is bad about the way men look at women.”

NEON DEMON focuses primarily on women. One wonders how his wife responded to its material and how the film is dedicated to her.

“She was very pleased with the movie. Thank, God,” Refn said. “Her favorite films of mine are probably this movie and DRIVE. They are both kind of the brother and sister of the same soul in their explorations and meanings.”

His wife, who appeared in Refn’s 1999 film BLEEDER (and directed MY LIFE), serves as the inspiration for both DRIVE and THE NEON DEMON.

To him, it was a “full circle” moment that will forever live in his memory, much like THE NEON DEMON will in the minds of viewers.

THE NEON DEMON opens today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.