“Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” proclaims a character midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive, Only God Forgives) newest film The Neon Demon. Refn has taken that adage and applied it literally to his film. The Neon Demon is a stunningly beautiful film that never fails to draw your eyes in and keep them locked on the screen. The script, on the other hand, is somewhat of a mixed bag. While not a failure by any means, it will undoubtedly leave you wanting more from the already lengthy film.
16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning, a far cry from her roles in Maleficent and Super 8) has just moved to Los Angeles and is trying to get into the modeling business. While staying at a motel in Pasadena managed by a one of the sleaziest men ever put on film (Keanu Reeves), she befriends makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, ever the scene-stealer), who introduces her to fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road). After being discovered by a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men), Jesse lands a gig with a famed photographer (a barely recognizable Desmond Harrington) and is eventually put in the crosshairs of a fashion mogul (Alessandro Nivola). This sparks jealousy from Gigi and Sarah as Jesse’s career takes off.
The Neon Demon is a slow burn, so to say more about the plot would harm the viewing experience. The film plays like a hallucinatory dream tour of the Los Angeles fashion world. Imagine if Bret Easton Ellis got his hands on the script for Starry Eyes and injected his own style of commentary into it and you’ve got The Neon Demon. If that sounds like your cup ‘o tea, then you may find yourself falling under The Neon Demon’s spell. If not, then there’s always Independence Day: Resurgence.
Fanning has really come into her own since her breakout role in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 five years ago. In the hands of a lesser actress, Jesse would come across as apathetic and droll. Fanning imbues Jesse with vulnerability combined with just the right amount of guile and sophistication to make you want to see her succeed. It requires a suspension of disbelief to buy the fact that she is the most gorgeous model in Los Angeles that has all of these higher-ups eating out of the palm of her hand. “You’re going to be great,” her new agent tells her.” I just don’t see it. This is not an insult towards Ms. Fanning, who is an attractive young woman, but the film treats her as if she were Helen of Troy. That being said, I was amazed at how, as it went on, The Neon Demon convinced me that she was as gorgeous as the other characters believed she was. Maybe that’s the point: we’ll believe anything if we’re told to believe it enough times by enough people. Am I part of the group that The Neon Demon is criticizing? Maybe I am.
Supporting performances are equally as strong, with Reeves and Hendricks making the most of their brief appearances (Hendricks’ role is essentially a cameo). Lee and Heathcote aren’t asked to do much other than play bitchy Heathers-type models, but it is Malone who steals the show as Ruby. Malone hasn’t had a decent leading role in a film since 2004’s Saved!, which is a crime. She can bring a lot to a film in a supporting role, as evidenced by her turn in the Hunger Games films, but it’s unfortunate she is frequently relegated to those types of roles. Refn does make good use of her here, as she is given the widest range of emotions to work with throughout the course of the film.
Composer Cliff Martinez returns after partnering with Refn on Drive and Only God Forgives. Needless to say he does not disappoint here. He fills The Neon Demon with synth-heavy electronica and a dash of Sia for good measure. Like Martinez’s other scores on Refn’s films, the music is a character in and of itself. Likewise, Natasha Braier’s cinematography puts you in the heart of the city, almost making you feel dirty as you’r watching it.
Things start to fall apart in the last act when Refn throws things at the screen merely for shock value. The final 20 minutes are the only moments of the film that would qualify as traditional horror, but they feel disconnected from the rest of the film. Of course all of the blood, necrophilia and eyeballs look gorgeous, but . It’s not that the sudden turn into grotesquerie is offensive (though the necrophilia is a bit jarring), it’s that those moments just don’t evoke a strong emotion other than that of indifference. That’s really saying something considering all of the shocking imagery Refn throws on screen.
The Neon Demon will prove to be just as polarizing as Refn’s last film, though it is arguably more accessible than Only God Forgives and more successful in getting its point across. At the very least it will spark lots of conversations, which is undoubtedly what Refn wants. Filled with fine performances, a fantastic score and beautiful cinematography, The Neon Demon is an enthralling virtual tour through an exaggerated version of L.A.’s fashion world. The script, written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, may not hold up when put under scrutiny, but at least what’s on screen is pretty. After all, beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.