A model takes the LA fashion scene by storm, attracting unsavory characters.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Bella Heathcoate
Review by Jon Kissel
The level of villainy on display here sneaks up on the viewer based on how the film subverts expectations. Makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) asks to be in the room with Jesse during a photo shoot, and based on the photographer’s intensity, the viewer thinks she’s doing this for Jesse’s protection. Ruby’s true aims are revealed to be more jealous and lascivious, and the photographer never crosses a line, at least based on his limited knowledge. Ruby’s model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) come off as arrogant at first, but Refn and the two actors do the work to potentially make their standoffishness a defense mechanism against the cruelties of their chosen profession. It’s an accomplishment that a woman as beautiful as Bella Heathcoate can ask Jesse about what it’s like to be noticed, and this can come across as earnest instead of absurd. These characters constantly live around beauty, and they know how to evaluate it, and they know when they’re being outdone.
Of course, for what allowances I was willing to grant them, Gigi and Sarah turn out to be cannibals in the service of Ruby, a witch, making The Neon Demon a dark fairy tale about the Fairest of Them All who ends up eaten by the evil queen. As the focus of this anti-Snow White, Fanning embodies an ingenue role, gradually draining her innocence bar until she’s ready to be consumed. Multiple characters tell her that her doe-eyed charm and suggestible nature are assets, like the more confidence she gains, the less valuable she becomes. When she reaches full confidence, discarding the nice but out of his league Dean (Karl Glusman) and having the sense to move out of a motel she never should’ve stayed at in the first place, she’s ready for the slaughter. If she had stayed compliant and submitted to Ruby’s aggressive sexual advances, she probably would’ve stayed alive longer. The Neon Demon’s saying something here within the confines of an industry that by its nature puts sell-by dates on humans. A model is only worth so much until she stops taking orders.
Refn’s signature visual touches are all over The Neon Demon, and what’s missing, i.e. long shots of characters strolling or impassively thinking, serves to further boost the film. He immediately announces how striking the film is going to look with that first smash cut to Jesse looking dead and bloodied. Color plays its usual role, with Jesse frequently the only character clad in white, and red strobes taking over the club where she first meets Gigi and Sarah. The incredible polished white of a photo shoot, so white that the viewer can’t see the contours of the room, is breathtaking. Is there weird shit in Refn film? Between cougar break-ins, vomited eyeballs, knife-as-penis metaphors, and the aforementioned corpse sex, of course there is, but what’s great balances the over-the-top stuff and often accentuates it.
The Neon Demon is ranked high in Refn’s filmography, but only because his work is so hit and miss for me. What I’ve liked best from him (Drive, Pusher 2, Pusher 3) isn’t as confrontational, meaning the choices being made can be understood on some level. With some exceptions, things make sense in The Neon Demon, and that level of understanding allows me to take in the stunning visuals and Cliff Martinez’s score more comfortably. When Refn is daring the viewer to fast forward, or turn the movie off, like in Valhalla Rising or Only God Forgives, I’m happy to oblige him. The Neon Demon is instead seductive, and I’m happy to be drawn along for the ride. B