Nicholas Winding Refn is weird. We’ve known that for a while. Now I wonder if, like many before him, he’s attempting Kubrickian fame. He just might be after witnessing the latest plunge up his own ass, The Neon Demon. It’s pretentious, and it’s gorgeous. It’s horrifying, and it’s hypnotic. It’s pointless, and it’s poignant. It’s a film I’m recommending out of sheer curiosity. What will people think? This is what I think: Drive will remain the most rewarding experience on his resume, but Demon is so far his most ambitious effort yet.
Set in that glitzy capital of America’s consumer decadence, hence the title, meek virgin Jesse (Elle Fanning), straight outta Georgia, is somehow the new “it” girl in L.A., easily trumping angular blonde Amazonians left and right. Refn wastes a lot of time lingering on shots for no reason and apparently wastes no time setting the stage for a heightened reality. Jesse just hit town and she’s already a big hit in the modeling world, much to the chagrin of her more plastic peers. She starts out a little girl seeking kinship with a friendly makeup artist (Jena Malone) and maybe more with an older guy (Karl Glusman) who afforded her first gig. That little girl is soon lost, as are we, in a wash of flashing symbols and a sense of impending doom. Symbolism abounds, some of it obvious, some of it confusing, all of it in your face. The bright lights are nearly epileptic in a nightclub sequence early on, so you’ve been forewarned, and the electronic score is nearly masterful throughout, so get out and grab the Cliff Martinez soundtrack as soon as possible.
Alessandro Nivola and Keanu Reeves appear too briefly as dirtbags of differing classes, their douchbaggery representing modern-day misogyny at its sleaziest. Instead of sneering at them, Refn invites us to laugh at them. Malone’s gift for conveying contempt through a pearly smile suits her character well, a woman at the pinnacle of southern California fakery. Fanning, for her part, embodies exactly what she sought out when signing on for this project: a little girl transformed. Every young actress wishes for the image of womanhood at some point in their career, and they achieve it by getting bloody or getting naked. Fanning does both. Desmond Harrington is almost unrecognizable as Jesse’s creepy high fashion photographer, and real life models Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee steal the show as scowling rivals. They can’t believe this teenager from the trashy south has come on the scene and ruined their year. However, as a teenager, she knows nothing of the occult. They have the element of surprise.
I’ll call it the occult since the movie calls it nothing. Make no mistake, this is a horror movie. You don’t realize it until it’s too late and you’re watching Elle Fanning listen to a murder in the motel room next door. Without spoiling much, The Neon Demon is the dog eat dog world of modeling made literal, though not much is explained regarding these horrific acts consummated in the third act anyways. The Swedish filmmaker prefers to let his audience stew in a bloody sea of metaphors, even if it means wading through scenes of grotesque depravity. Lucky for him, his acute eye for visuals is a sight for sore eyes when his script goes off the rails: a runway event as an abstract hallucination, complete with floating triangles and three-way mirrors, a dangerous feline passing between shadows in that dank motel room, or a dozen models posing in terror as they wait for an audition in their lingerie. Refn is not exactly the best messenger for themes of female objectification, but the male gaze is so prominent here you can’t say you didn’t get it.
What begins as a biting take-down of the vapid depths of that world becomes something more sinister, more shocking. Refn has no shame and he has no qualms about showing us despicable people engaging in disgusting behavior. His aim is to explore the deplorable of a shallow society, to revel in America’s obsession with youth, YOLO, and yucky fame. And while he certainly succeeds at that, ambition doesn’t always equate to a rewarding experience.