You could toss any and all criticisms about Nicolas Winding Refn's new thriller The Neon Demon at me, and I'd probably agree with all of them. A preoccupation with style over story? Sure. One dimensional characters? Absolutely. Disgusting, distasteful, and disturbing? Indeed.
All of those criticisms, and plenty more, are completely valid. And yet I came out of The Neon Demon pretty sure I liked it, and a few days later, I was ordering the soundtrack and desperately wanting to watch it again.
The story, such as it is, is centered on Jessie (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old beauty from Georgia who has come to Los Angeles to make it big. "I can't sing. I can't dance...No real talent. But I'm pretty. And I can make money off pretty," she tells her photographer/boyfriend as they sit in the Hollywood hills overlooking the glowing Los Angeles sprawl below them.
She befriends — in the loosest sense of the term "friend" — a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and two established models named Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, both working models in real life). They, and everyone else Jessie meets — including a sleazy motel owner, played by Keanu Reeves — react to her like desperate, hungry predators eying some fresh prey.
Jessie's natural talent helps her rise quickly from amateur photoshoots to walking the runway at a hot designer's latest show, and her newfound friends aren't exactly congratulating her on her success. Perhaps they've seen All About Eve or Showgirls, and have figured out how these things usually end.
Like Showgirls, The Neon Demon could be viewed as a horribly wrongheaded attempt at making a serious thriller set within the world of female dominated entertainment, or a purposely campy and tongue-in-cheek parody of the same.
It's also like a live-action version of a Vogue editorial spread. You look at it, first admiring the pretty girls and their elaborate clothes. But then you notice they're in a room filled with really gruesome things...and that a necklace is actually blood from a throat wound; the photos are telling some kind of story, but you aren't really sure what it means...
Fashion and images of violence have a longstanding and often troubling association. Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton were famous for their masochistic photospreads, and thrillers like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Lipstick were playing off the violent associations over 30 years ago. So, really, the world of modeling is the perfect fit for Refn, who has always preferred that one-dimensional characters inhabit his moody and violent movies. (If you want some idea what you might be getting into, check out 2011's Drive.)
The Neon Demon is Refn's moodiest movie yet. When I think back on it, unforgettable graphic images come to mind. Graphic in the horror movie sense, yes (it's like an even bloodier version of Dario Argento). But also in the design sense. Jessie's walk down a runway that turns into a red neon vortex of mirrors; a nightmare where hands attempt to push through rubbery wallpapered walls; Jessie laying in a pool of blood that may or may not be fake; a mountain lion in a motel room.
Refn films beautiful things, and ugly things that look beautiful, and combined with the perfect electronic score by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez, it becomes something completely hypnotic. The Neon Demon may not have great dialogue, or a realistic story, or any character you can actually root for. But it's pretty. And I can watch pretty.
The Neon Demon is currently playing in theaters everywhere.