Monday, December 5, 2016
You'd think that "The Neon Demon," a campy, brutal new thriller from Nicholas Winding Refn set in the fashion world, would be a fun watch. And it is, occasionally. There are some lovely shocks and scintillating visuals to enjoy as fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) begins her career as a high fashion model in Los Angeles. Seasoned twenty-something models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) immediately regard the newcomer as competition, but makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) is intrigued for different reasons. Sadly, "Neon Demon" is also frequently a slog, dragging out its metaphors and hiding too many of its better notions under layers of murk and symbolism.
Jesse is positioned as a sacrificial lamb from the start, made up as a murder victim covered in fake blood and colored sequins for her first photo shoot. Sixteen years old, and tight-lipped about past, she's coached to lie about her age by the modeling agency that signs her, and then fawned over by photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). Everyone is enraptured by her beauty, promising Jesse success and glory. However, she's also extremely vulnerable. Jesse is almost totally alone in the world, short on cash, and living out of a sketchy motel run by the brutish Hank (Keanu Reeves). The only one who really seems to care about her well-being is her would-be boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur photographer. Jesse, alas, is hypnotized by the glitter and the neon lights, and doesn't realize the danger until it's too late.
Elle Fanning does her best to give Jesse some shadings, suggesting that she has a darker, nihilistic side that is being drawn out by her meteoric rise. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, remembering that Ryan Gosling managed to do a lot with very little in Winding Refn's "Drive." However, Fanning has even less to work with, and fails to deliver. Jesse has a fair amount of dialogue, and some interesting reactions to strange encounters, but her primary purpose in the film is to be a symbol of everything that the fashion industry desires and destroys. She has very little agency, and the director doesn't seem interested in giving her much of an inner life beyond occasionally enjoying her victimization. The only bits of the story where Jesse is actually active is in her interactions with Dean, which are brief and fairly dull.
Fortunately, there's the trio of Sarah, Ruby, and Gigi. They're the ones who get all the juicy stuff, embodying lust, jealousy, and self-destruction. Sarah and Gigi in particular are ghoulish figures, their desperation and viciousness seeping out from their coldly perfect facades from the very first scene. They're shallow, but deeply unnerving. Ruby is a more complicated creature, whose motives are clear, but her ultimate endgame less certain. Jena Malone turns in my favorite performance of the film, as Jesse's potential ally who becomes stranger and more concerning the longer she's onscreen. The biggest flaw of the film is that it doesn't make more use of her.
The whole narrative becomes a series of escalating absurdities and esoteric mood pieces, which Winding Refn is no stranger to, but these are not particularly good ones. He puts Elle Fanning up against yawning black voids and searing white backdrops, bathes her in colored lights, and paints her with shiny cosmetics. Cliff Martinez provides the synthesizer-heavy score, adding aural texture to the abstractions. It's all very pretty, but rarely evocative. Often, it bores. By the time the violence finally gets underway - as it always does in a Winding Refn movie - it's too little too late.
Clearly, "The Neon Demon" is meant to be interpreted, as it's full of signs and symbols and patterns. However, all the dialogue is too on the nose, and the director's biases are all too clear. Worse, the "The Neon Demon" isn't the least bit horrific or thrilling, despite all the witchy allusions to "Suspiria." The stakes just are just too low, the heroine too inert. There's something terribly untidy about the loose ends left everywhere - the fate of Dean, and the whole subplot with Hank, for instance. And frankly, all the glowing triangles and pyramids just came off as silly affectations.
Whatever spell Nicholas Winding Refn was trying to weave, it doesn't have the desired effect. Points for some interesting imagery and admirable restraint in portraying the female characters, but I expect that even the most devoted Winding Refn fans are going to have some trouble with this one.