The Neon Demon (2016, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Jessie (Elle Fanning) is a fresh-faced Midwesterner just off the bus in Los Angeles. She is making the rounds to become a fashion model and meets Ruby (Jena Malone) along the way. Ruby seems very struck with Jessie, who possesses an otherworldly beauty and brings her into the world of professional modeling. Jessie is also dealing with a potential new romance with an amateur photographer and the leering of a nightmarish hotel clerk.
The Neon Demon is a film about superficiality that thinks it has something profound to say about the nature of beauty but merely ends up being just as vapid as the target of its philosophizing. It is an exquisite film, no doubt, with some gorgeous and iconic cinematography done by Natasha Brier. Throughout the movie, there are great posed shots (a mountain lion snarling on a hotel bed, models bathed in blood-red neon lights, figures emerging or receding into the shadows). But it all adds up to nothing. There is an attempt to monologize some meaning into the story in the third act through an overwrought speech by Jessie, which comes across more as director Refn thinking he’s smart but is more embarrassingly sophomoric in his philosophy.
If you can separate the paper thin story from the film, then The Neon Demon is a very sumptuous visual feast. Refn doesn’t try to hide from his obvious influences; mainly the Dario Argento made Giallo films of the 1970s and early 1980s. The story’s framework is a nod to Suspiria, with a coven of witches and a naive ingenue unaware of the horrors that await her. Thematically, the movie touches on the same ideas as recent pictures like Black Swan, Starry Eyes, and Sleeping Beauty. However, those films explore the themes in much more interesting ways. Starry Eyes, in particular, seems like an apt comparison to The Neon Demon and while it’s visuals are not as stunning, it tells a much more meaningful story.
It’s hard to judge the acting of the cast because they either weren’t given much material to work with or were directing to be one dimensional and uninteresting. The few bright spots come in brief appearances by Christina Hendricks as a modeling agency rep and Keanu Reeves as the previously mentioned creep of a hotel clerk. It would have been nice to spend more time with those characters because they seemed to have deeper roots in this hellish version of Los Angeles and could have proven an intriguing counterpoint to Jessie’s blankness.
Refn has been a very polarizing director with his last film; Only God Forgives being very divisive among critics and fans. I’d argue that it is a better film than The Neon Demon simply because characters behave consistently, and they have a complete, coherent arc. Only God Forgives also has striking visuals and compelling Cliff Martinez score, just like The Neon Demon. The behavior of the characters in The Neon Demon is baffling because from scene to scene the actors seem to be told to play entirely different characters. As a tone piece the movie succeeds, but as a cohesive film with characters, plot, and themes it is as frivolous as cotton candy.