Nicolas Winding Refn begins “The Neon Demon” by putting the monogram “NWR” at the bottom of the frame during the opening credits, so he is certainly marking the film as peculiarly his own. That’s good, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else wanting to claim it. An extraordinarily stylish and equally vacuous—as well as seriously grotesque—tale of the Los Angeles fashion scene, the only interest of the alternately boring and repulsive film seems to be in showing off the director’s technical skill and disgusting the audience in the process; the message it conveys is banal, and the grim laughs it elicits are few and far between.
The story—a threadbare one, despite the extravagance of the costumes and settings—centers on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a pretty but naïve sixteen-year old who arrives in L.A. to attempt a modeling career. She takes a room in a crummy motel presided over by a scumbag manager (Keanu Reeves) while she begins making the rounds, helped by Dean (Karl Glusman), a blandly decent young man who becomes her puppy-like protector.
Jesse has incredibly swift success, getting an agent (Christina Hendricks), and catching the eye of a top designer (Alessandro Nivola) and an “in” photographer (Desmond Harrington), as well as makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone), who moonlights sprucing up corpses in the morgue and may have designs on the girl beyond simple friendship. In doing so Jesse engenders envy in her main competitors, slinky Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who find themselves shunted off to the side while the younger girl’s fortunes seem poised to go into the stratosphere.
As Jesse becomes increasingly successful, she grows more and more confident, even arrogant, and she antagonizes people she shouldn’t. In the gruesome final act of the movie, Refn shows in a literal, absurdly over-the-top fashion what a dog-eat-dog business modeling is. (More precisely, a cat-eat-cat one—an early segment in which Jesse’s motel room is invaded by a mountain lion can be taken as a kind of prophecy of her ultimate fate, which is further suggested by the stuffed leopard in the mansion in which she finds herself toward the close.) The last ten minutes or so of the picture, centered on a photo shoot in which Gigi and Sarah are the principals, will probably be too much for a lot of viewers to stomach, though it’s staged with the visual elegance Refn luxuriates in throughout. (One could add, though, that it might prompt you to shout out, “The eyes have it!”)
Refn’s style, with its slow tracking shots across carefully-arranged tableaux and super-deliberate camera moves toward and away from people and objects, shows the strong influence of directors like Kubrick and Cronenberg. The difference is that while those filmmakers had ideas to go along with their elaborate imagery, Refn seems content with going for macabre shocks and grisly laughs (as well as an attitude about lesbianism that’s about as offensive as something coming out of the 1960s). There’s simply no content to “The Neon Demon,” apart from the trite observation that the modeling business is a cutthroat affair. The emptiness of the picture might be intended as a commentary on how devoid of substance the entire fashion industry is, but if so it doesn’t make the picture any more intellectually stimulating.
Acting is pretty much inconsequential in a work that uses performers more as statues than real people, but Fanning takes to the camera’s leering attention well enough, even if the evidence of how “special” she is relies more on other people’s reactions than her actual look. Among the others Reeves and Glusman seem loosest, though Malone evinces the genuinely creepy air her character requires. The real stars, however, are the craftsmen, with the contributions of production designer Elliott Hostetter and costume designer Erin Benach the standouts, though the lapidary moves of cinematographer Natasha Braier and solemn pacing of editor Matthew Newman are certainly in line with the director’s loopy vision.
But it’s a pity that Refn’s vision, so visually voluptuous, is so limited—and even, if one wants to get serious about it, misogynistic. With “Drive,” the director appeared to move beyond his enfant terrible stage, but with “Only God Forgives” and now this film he’s regressed into bad-boy territory. He’s obviously got a great eye, but it would be a sign of maturity if he’d stop just sticking his thumb into yours.