We’ve heard of Hollywood chewing people up and spitting them out, but Nicolas Winding Refn thinks he’s found a new spin on the old metaphor in The Neon Demon. Hardly the first story of showbiz’s capacity to lure new talent with false promise, Refn follows a pretty 16-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) freshly arrived in Los Angeles ready to make her way in the modeling business. A coldly calculating agent (Christina Hendricks laying down a fine layer of ice in her one scene) tells her to lie about her age (19, because “people believe what they’re told”) and books her a shoot with an intense famous photographer (Desmond Harrington). That’s just the start of a skeevy journey up the ladder as she draws jealous attention from all the older models (like Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), lamenting their advanced age (mostly mid-20s, but some are pushing, horror of horrors, thirty) and staring at her with daggers in their eyes. If looks could kill, they’d tear her apart limb by limb and steal back the work that’s always flowing to the younger, the newer, and the more exploitable.
Per usual, Refn’s shallow approach is one of moody synths and long, brooding silences punctuated by staccato bursts of dialogue traded like hot barbs in flat tones. Sometimes this works for him, like the dreamy artsy cars-and-gore Drive, transcending its trappings to become a slick, woozy, romantic and muscular homage to Michael Mann and Walter Hill. Other times this fails him, like the gross and gaudy Only God Forgives, a pointless exercise in masculine posturing and blacklight set design. Neon Demon is the midpoint between those earlier efforts, bringing a swirling generalized menace to the long passages of driving electronic music and pulsing strobe lights, fussily composed frames – Natasha Braier’s coldly sensuous cinematography splayed out with high gloss, like fashion spreads – capturing the entrapment of beautiful women in uncomfortable positions. It effectively communicates the danger inherent for a young person lost in the lower rungs of the entertainment business, trading her looks for a chance at stability.
Refn isn’t a particularly original or deep thinker on the topics at hand. Any insight the film has stops with simple statements like a model coolly reporting “Anything worth having hurts a little” or a casually dismissive designer’s snap, “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” So what we’re left with is a simplistic and repetitive exploration of tired old themes. Refn, with co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, keep the plot agonizingly flat. When not befriended by a nice guy (Karl Glusman) or a seemingly helpful makeup artist (Jena Malone), Fanning poses and reacts in sequences that find her surrounded by predators, sized up as meat and flesh, objectified, commodified, and exploited. There are the agents, photographers, competitors, men. Even a big cat somehow appears in her cheap motel room one night in a sequence of surreal dread that almost seems like it must’ve been a dream until someone casually mentions it several scenes later. But none of these moments or characters have any life to them. They remain slickly photographed, but empty and uncharacterized. Who are these people? What do they want? Where do they come from? What are their inner lives? It’s hard to say.
The movie’s derivative images (from Lynch, Argento, Kubrick, and a host of directors from the avant-garde and music video worlds) turn on conventional themes of greed, envy, and the lengths people will go to become famous and stay young and beautiful. But it acts like that’s enough. It’s totally fascinated with itself, an L.A. commentary made up entirely of clichés, and a style made up entirely of posturing, grooving on its own pulsating aura of unease and meticulous design. It’s also a dispatch from nowhere, hermetically sealed with no relation, real or metaphorical, to reality. Refn envisions its showbiz world as empty and depopulated. There are hardly any extras, and the only way we know Fanning is moving up in the fashion world is that a character tells us. The whole industry seems to be made up of our cast, and doesn’t extend past the bounds of any given frame. The only spark of life is Keanu Reeves, doing great, intriguing work in a couple scenes as a sleazy motel owner. He’s given a Movie Star entrance, and digs into his character-actor role as if he’s walking out of another, better version of this movie.
The Neon Demon visualizes its tired observations from a stylish remove, passing itself off as profound when it’s just played out. The endeavor is merely an exercise in animating its sparse ideas through a slow molasses drip of art house trances goosed with a dried-out straight-faced camp quality and a few effective horror movie excesses. A scene of a murder heard through the walls – or is it another nightmare half-realized? – has surreal chill. And the movie builds to making a spectacle of itself in its final scenes for a long-delayed payoff with ostentatiously preposterous, half-motivated, and grotesquely self-amused violence and gross-out appeal. A corpse post-autopsy is given a sort of spit shine, a nice girl’s fate is as the red mist in a softcore shower of blood on two others, and a climactic eyeball gag is at once horrible and hilariously audacious. By that point the movie has spilled over into the heights of its ridiculousness, surprising and gratuitous, one of those movies that wants to finger-wag society’s desire for flesh and blood while also relishing the opportunity to stage some and lick it all up. I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s like a small, nasty, pseudo-smart splatter picture stretched out to the point of self-serious tedium.