“Art is not about good or bad guys. Those days are over.” – Heroism and Characterisation in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Noir Trilogy

In his consistent wisdom, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, when talking about Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film noir classic Detour, described its genre thus:

“The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they’re bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life.”

I want you to seriously take heed of what this comment is pointing out, for it will penetrate the very heart of this article and its contents. Of all the up-and-coming independent filmmakers of the twenty-first century – with the possible exception of Jeremy Saulnier, whose ‘Colour’ duology (2013’s Blue Ruin and this year’s The Green Room) have proven to be spellbinding entries, none has come close to the visual and narrative genius of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Although he has had some equally successful (and unsuccessful) and interesting films before 2011, it was that year’s sleeper hit Drive that brought him to the notice of the filmgoing community in a big way.

Let me just indulge in a tangent briefly: I often find it funny and ironic that people you know who hate the underground franchises and independent scene suddenly consider themselves experts on the genre and claim they “always liked it”, even though you were the one being ridiculed for liking it; you’d be the odd one or the weirdo because you like ‘some guy’s’ mad film, but as soon as a successful mainstream addition to that director’s catalogue does well, they’re your best friend. Anyway, my point is that this is exactly what happened with Drive. So many people I know became obsessed overnight with Ryan ‘The Gos’ Gosling and his almost frustratingly good looks, the soundtrack, the 80s throwback atmosphere, and the great look in general of the film. This success is all down, in my opinion, to the fiendishly brilliant direction from Refn, in a subgenre that is quite new in the film world. That subgenre is of course the subject of this piece: neon noir.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘neon’ noir? Well, it is a little confusing to categorize at first, and we need a little history lesson first. It’s definitely a subgenre you need to see to understand; I can’t possibly do full justice to it here, just as reading one of Shakespeare’s plays is simply inadequate if one wishes to understand and ‘get’ them – they must be seen. It’s an obvious fact that the western was the first real American film genre: by the 30s and 40s, the film medium at the time was still relatively young, so it therefore made sense that its primary generic qualities should reflect something innovative, something dangerous, something that pushed the boundaries of civilization’s desire to understand and present itself. What could do this better than the Wild West, the true image of America’s boundless westward expansion in the face of simultaneous danger and redemption?

If the western was the first real American film genre then its logical antecedent has to be the film noir/crime genre. This is so because, technically, it’s a nearly identical genre: there are ‘bad’ guys (instead of ‘Indians’, read ‘gangsters’) and ‘good’ guys (instead of ‘cowboys and sheriffs’, read ‘cops and private investigators’), and a primordial unbalance that drives the plot (whether it’s defending a village from a horde of Mexicans or Indians, or a gorgeous dame from a pestering husband or abusive master). But there was an immediate and important difference in their genetics, and it’s so much more evident in the noir: this is a genre notable for its place in urbanity, not its wilderness. Where the western is the symbol of the old American Dream, the noir is the American Dream as it is being lived in, tamed, corrupted, and often being anything but a dream.

We all know the tropes of the noir ‘look’: a thirty-or-forty-something private detective or ex-cop (or both), borderline alcoholic, self-hating and divorced, takes on a client who is usually drop dead gorgeous, yet dangerous, either for the clientele she attracts or the lifestyle she leads. There is usually a McGuffin of some sort to drive the (often simplistic, but not always) plot, akin to The Maltese Falcon’s (1941) eponymous bird, or Kiss Me Deadly’s (1955) mysterious box. And there is nearly always a twist to the tale, something quite embarrassingly overused in today’s cinema.

There’s a look to noir, an atmosphere. In other words, it’s very much an experience-based subgenre rather than an expositional, content-based one. You see every blade of light in the dark, smell every whiff of cigarette smoke, hear the bustle of the streets and clubs and bars, taste the bitter sting of every double scotch, and touch the cold metal of guns and soft velvet of every beautiful woman’s dress. Along with horror, it’s no doubt the most sensory of all film genres. Despite this, cinema, and more importantly genre, inevitably changes with the times: horror has become self-reflexive and satirical; comedy, despite its monstrous popularity in the 1960s-1980s, has just become the same annoyingly unfunny plots in the modern age; science fiction now only consists of about two franchises, both of which have sequels and prequels galore; action, with the possible exception of the superhero sub-genre,  has only become interesting and fresh in other parts of the world’s cinema now thanks to pap like Transformers (2007) and Battleship (2012); and even drama has seen dramatic change, producing genuinely adult, Oscar-worthy material like Fight Club (1999), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Gone Girl (2014) to name a few recent examples.

Times do change, and so the noir does too; specifically, it became the ‘neo noir’. It was a ‘new’ noir, a noir that embraced the style of the cityscape while ditching the old-fashioned elements of the PI and the helpless damsel. It doesn’t really have an inception from one place, but I would argue strongly that the opening salvo of the New Hollywood era of 1967-80 could be seen at least as the stylistic departure from which the sub-genre would take its inspiration. This is of course one of the first big counter-culture pictures in American cinema: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. This was a diving-off point for any further crime or noir film to come; ever since Warren Beatty immortally introduces our two ‘heroes’ by saying, “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks”, all bets for simplistic, clean heroes were off, as were any simple moral judgements. The hero became a kind of nomad, a wanderer devoid of any direction, both socially and literally. One only has to consider the following era’s protagonists to see what this entails: gone were the Bogarts, Mitchums, and Stewarts of the cinema world, and in were Travis Bickle, Rick Deckard, Ben Braddock, ‘Popeye’ Doyle, and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, all presenting  (anti-)heroes on the edge, on the fringes of morality and society.

It is from the flames of this particular noir that Refn’s trilogy comes to the forefront. This is not an official trilogy per se, but a thematic one, very much in the vein of Romero’s Dead trilogy, meaning that while each film functions as a separate entity, all three form a single thematic and stylistic nucleus. That nucleus is neon noir. I will discuss the two main aspects of these films that cement for me the thematic framework of the trilogy: the ‘hero’ and the role of the female.

Drivers, Drug smugglers, and Fashionistas: The Heroes

If you are at all familiar with any of Refn’s previous work then you will know that he does not portray simple, run-of-the-mill heroes and heroines; indeed, nearly all of his protagonists are tortured, twisted, and destroyed souls. One only has to consider Mads Mikkelsen’s amazing performance as the elusive yet violently destructive One-Eye in Valhalla Rising (2009), or Tom Hardy’s hilariously chilling rendition of Britain’s most violent prisoner in Bronson (2008), and even Refn’s handling of dual protagonists in Bleeder (1999) to see the germination of the seed that would become the neon noir hero.

Gosling’s dual portrayal of the Driver in Drive and Julian in Only God Forgives (2013) and Elle Fanning’s spooky yet mesmerising turn as Jesse in The Neon Demon (2016) represent the three key strengths of the neon noir characterisation. All three are complicated heroes: the Driver’s adrenaline-fuelled, yet relatively common day job as a film stuntman is shadowed by his night-time employment as a getaway driver for criminals; Julian is a drug-smuggler who works for his manipulative and outrageously vindictive mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) in Bangkok, yet all he craves is a stable relationship with her, and some meaning to his routine, bland criminal life; and finally, Jesse represents the most finely-tuned of the three heroes – she begins as a wide-eyed teenager desperate to succeed in the LA fashion industry, yet throughout the course of the film, she realises that she is the pinnacle of beauty in this game, and that nothing will get in her way of achieving this goal. Some creepy ‘friends’ are all that she has in the world, however, and she and they become twisted by each other’s jealousy, anger and murderous tendencies.

Gosling’s Driver is the simplest of the heroes, if simple is the right word. Perhaps I mean that he is the easiest to penetrate and understand; indeed, he becomes the most traditional hero of the three films, probably the reason why the film managed to achieve such success. There’s an eerie, yet sensual quality to Gosling’s acting, especially in his face; he achieves a sort of mercurial sensitivity, almost like he is accentuating his nomadic, mysterious, and ultimately violent tendencies through a mask of good looks and impenetrable stares. It’s the closest you’ll get to the traditional ‘faces’ of past noir heroes, as if Bogart were twenty years younger when he made his detective movies, but just as potent and forceful.

He’s the simplest because he goes through the most complete character arc of all three: he meets his new neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and (totally averse to noir tradition) her child Benicio (Kaden Leos) whom he both cares for deeply, and vanquishes the villains  -also in the most noir-like image as gangsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) – in order to keep her safe. He’s essentially the most ‘good guy’ of all the heroes; Julian is, despite his downtrodden personality at the hands of his mother, abusive towards his girlfriend, and Jesse is presented as apparently innocent and pure, yet beneath her lies the heart of a tyrant: a self-obsessed, arrogant, and totally oblivious tortured soul who knows how she can get what she wants.

On a side note, the trilogy relies heavily upon its manipulation of lighting, and there is no greater show of the dichotomy between light and dark than in Drive, in which a simple image shows the nature of its protagonists: the Driver and Irene are in no less than twelve (if I have indeed counted correctly) scenes of full light together, which I have interpreted as a show of their good natures, their contentedness with each other, and most importantly, their happiness. When they are together, they are the light in each other’s darkness. Compared with the other two films, this constitutes the purest use of light against dark, or specifically full light against full dark. Drive rarely uses the neon colours of the other two films, focussing instead on the bright white lights of apartment hallways and car headlights against the full dark of night in the city and the shadows of street corners. Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon present already dark underbellies of society, lit only by the angry reds, greens and blues of neon club, motel and photoshoot lighting; these are dark indictments of humanity’s base desires and secretive trysts – one need only look at Jesse’s meeting with Ruby (Jena Malone) and the two girls in the club scene at the start of The Neon Demon to see how gritty this tale will be, or the violent nature of Julian’s red-lit illicit boxing club in Only God Forgives.

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Even though the Driver’s nature is somewhat relatable compared with the protagonists of the grittier of the two of Refn’s trilogy, he still hides a dark and violent nature that the other two represent more openly: witness his comment to the man who recognises him in the diner (“shut your mouth, or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and shut it for you”), his rough treatment of Blanche, and his almost sickeningly violent attack on the goon in the lift. Indeed, they are near-mirror images on one another.

Julian’s nature is extremely conflicted: he runs second fiddle to his brother’s drug-smuggling/boxing club, and is clearly the inferior of the two in his mother’s eyes, something she openly admits by saying “I don’t understand you” and by crassly comparing the two boys’ manhoods in front of Julian’s mistress. There is a ton of Freudian and Oedipal angst in their relationship – quite literally in fact, as Julian’s escape to Bangkok was in the first place because he murdered his father, “with his bare hands” no less, and his mutilation of his mother’s womb at the end of the film is another symbolic action indicating his desire to be one with his mother, to make her understand him.

Jesse is a similarly wayward figure, minus the Freudian angle; she comes to LA to be a star in the fashion industry, and we get the impression from her interview at the start that she has run away from home and effectively become an orphan. She isn’t confident in her looks at first and doesn’t have a clue about how this cut-throat industry operates, again only at first. As we know from our Dickens and Brontës, orphans attract a cadre of people, good and mostly bad. Jesse’s are mostly bad; the manipulative and lusty Ruby, selfish and childish Sarah (Abbey Lee), and arrogant and spiteful Gigi (Bella Heathcote) all conspire to ‘take’ Jesse’s natural beauty from her once she becomes aware of its power by any means necessary, eventually in the most ultimately grisly method possible: cannibalism.

There’s an equal part Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) vibe to The Neon Demon (Refn admitted in an interview with James Franco on IndieWire that Tobe Hooper’s film had the most effect on him of any horror film he’d ever seen), an observation that many reviewers have pointed out: beauty and sex mixed with death and violence, most explicitly rendered in arguably the film’s most controversial scene (a scene which caused walk-outs at Cannes) in which Ruby masturbates to the image of Jesse while straddling and kissing a dead body. Maybe add part Nekromantik (1987) to the mix too then!

The point is that all three protagonists are weighed down by a darkness and uncertainty of some description or another: the Driver by his past and current occupation, Julian by his inadequate relationship with his mother, and Jesse by her eventual fall to pride and selfishness. The best way to sum up the nature of the neon noir hero comes, naturally, from its most successful instalment, Drive: there’s a scene in which the Driver and Benicio are watching SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-) on the television and a shark appears; the Driver asks whether it is a bad guy, to which Benicio replies that it is. When asked how he knows if the shark is a bad guy, Benicio says, “because he’s a shark”; with a melancholy and deflated look just hidden below the surface of his face, the Driver asks, “there’s no good sharks?”, and Benicio finally replies, “no, just look at him. He look like a good guy to you?”.

This scene sums up beautifully for me the image of the new breed of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in this particular sub-genre; gone are simple labels, black and white notions, and easy moral judgements. There are no Jedi or Sith here, no cowboys or Indians, no cops and robbers – this is a true evocation of the new hero of noir, the real human nature of heroes. We’re all sharks in truth; we are all prone to violence, hatred, anger, prejudice and malice, but sharks can be gentle, calm, reserved and caring as easily as they can be dangerous, just as we all can be. Unlike the movies, none of us ‘look’ like a hero or a villain in real life, we only look like one another, hence Ebert’s observation that noir heroes only think they’re good guys; as College’s song points out perfectly, only real human beings can be real heroes.

Damsels and Black Widows: The Women of Neon Noir

Obviously any noir worth its salt is bereft of weight if it doesn’t acknowledge the relationships between its heroes and women, and Refn’s trilogy is no exception. All the main protagonists form meaningful yet differing relationships with their female counterparts, relationships that define the boundaries of gender within the noir itself. We remember the damsels and femme fatales as much as we remember the main man himself – if not more in some cases – and it is the nature of neon noir to do this also. As with the hero, Drive offers the most straightforward depiction of the female figure in the noir, ostensibly in the characters of Irene and Blanche (Christina Hendricks).

Irene fits the damsel role very well, indeed she is so obviously a woman who is, as the cliché goes, in distress: her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) – despite his genuine love for his wife and child – is a convicted criminal due to be released soon, and the situation she is thrust into upon his death at the ill-fated ‘final’ robbery the Driver helps him with only brings her more trouble in the form of Bernie and Nino’s missing fortune. But she isn’t totally helpless, nor is she a swooning beau in the style of the former damsels of noir; she holds down her own job, looks after and protects her child vehemently, and does genuinely feel love for her husband, and it is not until after his death that she even considers her relationship with the Driver to be a romantic one. She is, in other words, loyal and faithful, something many older noir damsels lack.

Blanche is the total opposite to Irene and she is clearly marked as the closest figure to the femme fatale. This vague comparison is most likely due to the fact that we know basically nothing about her, only what we hear from others or see ourselves, which is not a good picture to go by as she is clearly abused and mistreated by her gangster masters (something her eventual death shows) and she does deliberately cause the death of Irene’s husband and try to lead the Driver to his death as well. She does however bring out the darker side of the Driver, especially in the motel scene shortly before her death, which is also something reminiscent of older noir. Again, picture Bogart in The Maltese Falcon: his relationship with Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessey belies the wantonness and flippancy with which he turns her in at the end, despite his feelings for her, or the violence towards Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) by J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

This leads directly into Only God Forgives, which strangely lacks a damsel at all, thanks to the overpowering nature of Julian’s mother; in fact if any damsel is to be found in this film it is Julian himself in a way. Because of the dual protagonist vehicle that Only God Forgives portrays, there is no female damsel figure: Inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and Julian enact both focal points in the film. To such an extent, in fact, that this comes closest to traditional noir, despite its Eastern setting, in that there is an actual detective present as opposed to the archetypal power this role held being filled by the other main characters in the trilogy. Refn reportedly whispered “you are God” into Parsingarm’s ear in every shot he occupies, perhaps to hammer home not only the idea of the avenging yet benevolently fair ‘God’ of the title, but in my eyes, to show that in the noir the detective archetype is God.

Julian therefore represents more of the damsel character; he is already fairly effeminate, subdued, clearly subordinate to his brother and definitely in thrall to his vindictive mother and the violence (both emotional and physical) that she enacts and demands. As with the other damsel figures, Julian submits to weakness and then, at the hands of Chang, punishment and finally retribution. This demonstrates brilliantly Refn’s way of presenting protagonists in wildly different and non-traditional ways compared with their generic forebears, as we discussed earlier.

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The femme fatale here is quite clearly Julian’s mother, whom I covered extensively in the first section, but is worth mentioning due to another interesting twist on the noir sensibility: she represents the villain too. When all is said and done, it is her drug operation that Julian and his brother operate, and it is at her insistence that Julian find whoever murdered his brother, despite the vile act he committed on a young prostitute at the film’s start. She is so vile and amoral that her death does not shock or move us; traditional noir femmes, while still clearly darker counterparts to their damsels, were still women in every sense of the word. They were feminine, beautiful, and somewhat tragic in most cases, so their deaths often moved us despite their failings and plots against the hero. Julian’s mother, however fills the role that the death of the villain would normally sustain: we are satisfied that she is killed, most fittingly by the avenging blade of Chang. There’s no mercy or redemption shown here, as with Julian – she is killed outright, just like the gangster who attempts to murder Chang earlier in the film by shooting up the restaurant he and his police officers are occupying. God is angry, and he has had his revenge.

Finally, this brings us to The Neon Demon, which it must be said is the most female-centric part of the trilogy. One could be forgiven for thinking there are actually no men present in its entirety; indeed the only men we do meet are either weak (Jesse’s photographer friend Dean (Karl Glusman)), perverted and murderous (Hank, portrayed perfectly by Keanu Reeves), or simply in awe of the female form (Sarno (Alessandro Nivola)). Women quite obviously rule the roost in this film. There’s a wonderful shot at the beginning that highlights this, in which Jesse explains to Dean her plans for the future now that she has come to LA amid the backdrop of the city and the moonlight. Refn films from a low angle as Jesse walks, as if on a thin plank, seemingly over the city, an excellent show of her ambition to stand above all others and her eventual goal to conquer this most vibrant and dangerous of cities.

The damsel and femme lines are quite easily decipherable in The Neon Demon… at first. In the beginning, Jesse displays an emotionally vulnerable and weak countenance, an innocence and honesty that could only seem to harm her in her dealings with the three girls she ‘befriends’. Eventually however, pretty much at the halfway point after the dinner with Sarno, Jesse realises that “I don’t wanna be them, they wanna be me”. It’s a transitional moment that switches Jesse from the traditional damsel to the beginnings of a femme fatale (she dies before we could see if she does actually become one): sexy, manipulative, corrosive, arrogant, and as she says her mother described her, “dangerous”. She points out most clearly herself the fact that “I’m not as helpless as I look.”

This goes exactly the same for Ruby, Sarah and Gigi: they appear to represent typical femme fatales in their manipulation and insulting of Jesse, their arrogance in being secure in their beauty, and their eventual murderous and cannibalistic intentions. But as with Jesse, there comes a point where this flips. At the film’s end, Gigi appears to be unwell at a photoshoot and retreats into the house to vomit. She regurgitates one of Jesse’s eyeballs and becomes distraught to the point of screaming, “I want her out of me!” before cutting open her stomach with a pair of scissors. After her death, Sarah eats the regurgitated eyeball and walks off, her fate unknown. Here the girls have been found unworthy of Jesse’s beauty, despite their literal consumption of it, and instead of the eternal youth flavour that most cannibal narratives bestow on their consumers, illness, incompatibility and death follow. I think deep down that Sarah will most likely end up the same way as Gigi: unable to handle the immortal beauty that Jesse held, and destined to die under its might.

One of them, however does survive, and logically will thrive: Ruby. In a chilling and surreal, almost painting-like tableau before the end of the film, she lays back naked in a position of giving birth in the darkness and moonlight of her mansion’s window, and a seemingly endless flow of blood ensues from where a child would normally come. In my own mind, this cements the awesome power of Jesse’s beauty being unleashed; Ruby is stronger and somehow more beautiful because of her consumption of Jesse, as opposed to the saccharine look of the other two, and she will only grow ever stronger. Child-bearing brings new life and new beauty into the world, and it is no different here. We get the explicit impression that Ruby has done this many times, and will continue to do it many times more to the next beautiful damsel that walks her way.

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To conclude this essay, I would say that the neon noir, as we have already established, is a strong piece of characterisation and visual acuity within its genre. Its distinct presentation of the heroes, villains, and females of its narratives are prime evidence that it is the revitalisation of a genre that hasn’t seen a lot of expression in the past decade or so. I must stress however that Refn is not the only practitioner of the subgenre; a few examples have surfaced from other talented directors quite recently in fact. Jonathan Glazer’s excellent Under the Skin (2013), Dan Gilroy’s equally brilliant Nightcrawler (2014), Frank Khalfoun’s satisfying remake of Maniac (2012), and even this year’s classic noir-driven Nice Guys (which ironically also starred Gosling) represent some of the newer approaches to an already well-loved and nostalgically traditional genre that helped define American cinema.

It is with Refn, however that I believe the greatest and most aesthetically pleasing form of neon noir has been realised, and his genius will no doubt continue to present wonderful examples of modern filmmaking in the years to come. One thing is clear from my examination of this trilogy: Refn is one hundred per cent right in his assertion that nowadays art doesn’t have good and bad guys, as each film has proved here: Drive  comes closest to the traditional crime-like noirs, but still presents mystery in its protagonist; Only God Forgives injects an Eastern spirituality into its proceedings, as well as twisting some of the older archetypes; and The Neon Demon presents the fashion industry itself as noir, rife with apparent damsels and overbearing femmes, as well as weak males. Refn’s revitalisation of noir, realised in his quote used as this piece’s title, combined with Ebert’s observation on noir, characterise the inherent power and sensibilities that this sub-genre wields on viewers. One can only hope it is here to stay.

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