A beautiful young girl, decked out in sparkling clothing, big false eyelashes, and glistening blood that spills out her slashed throat and down her long, pale arms. She is a vision, grotesque and gorgeous. And so Nicolas Winding Refn chucks us into his Only God Forgives follow-up Neon Demon, which is fierce yet flat.
Angel-faced ingénue Elle Fanning stars as new-to-L.A. model Jesse, whose meteoric rise in the world of cutthroat fashion makes her an instant enemy to models on the verge of becoming obsolete (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), but an enchanting treat to a string of skeezy older men (Karl Glusman, Alessandro Nivola, Keanu Reeves), and one smirking make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone).
If you’ve ever seen a film about a woman-dominated workplace (The Devil Wears Prada, Showgirls), you know the drill. The heroine enters the world wide-eyed, pliant, and naïve. But as Jesse struts down the runway and straight up the ladder, she wades into the corruption, greed and various vices of her new environment. Dropping her inhibitions and virtues faster than an out-of-vogue accessory, she becomes selfish, vain, and monstrous. While some heroines in such a trope-laden tale make an escape through a self-righteous denouncement of the whole scene, others pay a horrible price for their love of the limelight.
This is Winding-Refn’s turf. No one gets out unscathed.
Neon Demon is so drenched in style, it nearly drowns. The cinematography of Natasha Braier offers violently vibrant colors, nightmarish runway visions, and stunning satires of modern fashion shoots. The production design creates a compelling collision of fashion and violence in a darkly comic way most often seen in drag shows. Glitter and gold paint stands in for gore and violation. While sickly intoxicating, all this glamor and ghastliness is spoiled by stilted drama and a painfully predictable plot.
Winding Refn’s edit wallows in each sequence, dwelling on foreboding imagery that telegraphs each shocking twist until it’s neither shocking nor a twist. As a spoiler-lite example: Jesse’s first friend Ruby harbors an almost obsessive dedication to protecting this teen girl from the jealous models, entitled men, and vicious rapists who surround her. In a treacherous terrain where a sneering hotel owner (Reeves) describes the runaway 13-year-old in one of his rooms as “real Lolita shit, real Lolita shit,” there are no good people. Everyone has a self-serving agenda. So brace yourself, because Ruby is a lesbian. And she has a big lesbian crush on Jesse!
There’s much more scandalous developments to come, including a scene that made one reviewer in my screening bark out, “PREPOSTEROUS!” But with the pacing of a sleepwalker and all the emotional wallop of cologne commercial, Neon Demon doesn’t feel transgressive, shocking, or even interesting. Winding Refn urges his actresses to speak in flat, eternally bored tones, and the result is a movie that feels as lifeless as Fanning looks in the opening image above. The girl is gorgeous in the film. But the artsy provoc-auteur gives her little to play beyond demure, then dead-eyed.
Thankfully, Malone manages to bring some in some barbed wit and spiked pathos into her pining bestie. But Lee, who you might remember as the gorgeous gap-toothed wife in Mad Max: Fury Road, is the standout. Her eyes, quivering pools of regret and pain, submerge us into her heartbreaking helplessness in a scene where she sits among shattered glass and broken dreams. But both actresses are fighting a losing battle against brittle dialogue about the importance of lipstick and lines like “Are you food? Or are you sex?”
As the movie dragged on—and good gawds does it drag on—I went from bored to angry. Not because of the supposedly scathing send-up of the cannibalistic fashion world. Not because of the gross objectification of a teenage heroine. Not even because of the repeated indulgence in sexual threat, be it in high-fashion photo shoots or Jesse’s dilapidated hotel hovel. But because a movie this studded with beautiful people, surreal visuals, necrophilia and bloodlust has no right to be this deadly dull.
In the end, my thoughts on the vacuous Neon Demon can be boiled down to one mocking gif: