Divisive director Nicolas Winding Refn values style over substance in “The Neon Demon.” Like his 2011 Ryan Gosling movie “Drive,” it often looks slick, interesting and aglow. Unlike “Drive,” it doesn’t give you too much to think about. Like the characters in the film, the surface is beautiful but the soul is not.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an underage, virginal beauty trying to become a model in Los Angeles; she doesn’t know who to trust, and she lives in a seedy motel presided over by Keanu Reeves. Refn is very much in David Lynch territory here, and “The Neon Demon” is very much a “Mulholland Drive” rip-off. But where Lynch errs, to say the least, on the side of obscure and bewildering metaphors and symbols, “The Neon Demon” writes out its message in, well, neon.
A coven of mean beauties, played by Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee Kershaw and Jena Malone, are threatened by Jesse’s youth and innocence and, as she rises in their ranks as a model, they circle for the kill. If you think the modeling industry might be full of bloodsuckers, that things might get cutthroat, that there might be backstabbing — well, your opinion will be vindicated here. This is just the latest in a string of films, like David Cronenberg’s recent “Maps to the Stars,” that attempt to show us the nasty underbelly of the City of Angels where people are vapid at best and murderous at worst.
“The Neon Demon” is a shallow, narcissistic exploration of shallow narcissism, but it does frequently look great. While everyone seems to want a piece of Jesse, she experiences a revelation on a fashion catwalk, in one of the film’s memorable visual sequences. In gleaming darkness, she faces her reflection three times over, and begins to kiss herself. Her narcissism becomes a much-needed armor against those around her. Meanwhile, she gets a seemingly nice, normal boyfriend who tries to defend her from her many aggressors, which include a mountain lion that breaks into her hotel.
I must now describe another extremely memorable sequence that seems intended purely to shock and horrify, and I must say it succeeds. One unfortunate character, so frustrated by her unconsummated desire for Jesse, turns, as one does, to necrophilia.
As horrifying as some of these moments are, perhaps the film might have worked better if it had gone all the way into a horror movie. However, between the intentional shockers, there was far too much unintentional boredom. Ultimately, like its unfortunate teenaged heroine, “The Neon Demon” is terribly juvenile.
This is a stylish, sexy, or at least sexual, occasional horror movie. With Halloween upon us, I do recommend it for showing with the sound off as party background. The soundtrack is as derivative as the rest of the film, so you might want to pop in “The Monster Mash” or something along those lines. The opening image, which is Elle Fanning drenched in shiny blood lying on a couch looking beautiful, pretty much says everything the movie says. If you find it intriguing, you will probably enjoy the rest of the ride, although for me, it didn’t go far enough.
“The Neon Demon” is currently available to rent and to stream on Hoopla, a free digital streaming service from the Mobile Public Library.