Nicholas Winding Refn name-drops Kubrick within the first five minutes of The Neon Demon (“redrum” is the name of a model’s deep-velvet lipstick) but it’s Dario Argento’s 1977 masterwork Suspiria that Refn imitates most. Our heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning), is not unlike Jessica Harper, a bright-eyed newcomer who must contend with jealousy and suspicion at every turn as carnivorous huntsman, barely camouflaged, hiding in plain sight, hover around her, awaiting her virginal offerings. Their expectant gazes, unsettling and derogatory. There may be no supernatural element waiting in the wings but the characters of The Neon Demon are equally inhuman.
Splashy bolts of color dominate the screen as a demanding score, here from Cliff Martinez, pulses a disorienting cadence. Strobing cinematography from Natasha Braier proves infectious and mood-inducing, particularly in an early club scene that threatens to induce seizures for even the most mild epileptic, as The Neon Demon’s delightful fits of highly-stylized violence offer respite from its tedious narrative footing. Try as Refn might to graft together an art film and a horror project, The Neon Demon is frustratingly coy on the later and as narratively sparse as the most offending of art films. It all adds up to a trite critique of Hollywood’s fetishizing youth that feels puzzlingly regurgitated – see Starry Eyes just two years back for a more accomplished riff on the selfsame theme – and wrought with cliche, no matter the high visual style at play.
“We carve, stuff, inject and starve ourselves to death,” Abbey Lee’s Sarah half-complains, half-brags. She is the antithesis to Fanning’s Jesse. A callous, cold Frankenstein’s monster of beauty. Flanked by Bella Heathcote‘s equally deadened Gigi, Sarah’s conflated axis of evil is an easy target for Refn and has all the complexity of a deceased fly. When Sarah and Jesse first meet, introduced by kindly makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Sarah asks if Jesse has had work done. As a model, self-preservation is duty, the body an instrument taken in for fine-tuning. At a mere 16, Jesse’s desirable physique is al naturale, the admirable state of the perfection that is youth. It’s no shock those rival models, who’ve done time in sketchy LA motels and seedy backroom offices, these desperate statues of beauty, will go to extremes to excise that which hogs the spotlight and Jesse proves that very hog.
From go, Refn’s spit-roasted dialogue and Martinez’s throbbing score are mutually exclusive. When both are missing, Pandora’s Box is propped open. Grotesqueries emerge to silent shots. Silence is deafening and often accompany accounts of physical brutality. But shattered bones and vomitious gore are not Refn’s only instruments of discomfort. His chief donations for tasteless imagery come in the form of the many gawking men oogling Jesse’s denuded carcass. The predatory nature of the various scumbags who vie for her attention and affection is objectification barring delicacy. The cinematic equivalent of catcalling.
The “orphaned” Jesse – it’s intentionally vague whether Jesse’s parents are dead or if she is but another cliched runaway model – returns to her rundown motel one night to find a dark figure slinking around inside, pounding upon the walls. Racing to the front desk, she is met with even more hostility at the hands of Keanu Reeves, who’s chewing the scenery so hard you can see bits of it dangling from his fangs. Inside the room, a mountain lion. Even the animal kingdom has come out of hiding to have a taste of Jesse’s preternatural beauty.
The predatory undertones are made explicit when the feral cougar penetrates the four thin walls intended to keep the quivering thrum of the city out. The lion is ejected from the resident offscreen but infects her from within. The situation, like most in Neon Demon, is treated with almost nonexistent subtlety. And though the subtext can be noxiously on-the-nose, it has contagion-like qualities that seep from the screen into the subconscious. The thin metaphorical frame resembles that of the most impoverished of runway walkers but the flashy probing into our resting subliminal states work to unsettle and aggravate effectively.
Even though Refn plumps his film with appeals to the cinematic extremists, there’s little urging the film forward. Hallucinatory and kaleidoscopic camerawork make for pop-art expressions of tone but creates a preening, jejune moodiness. We’re offered declarations of extreme displeasure – a character forced to deep-throat a Bowie knife, another partaking in cadaver diddling, the proverbial death of innocence – but these grand moments of visual revelation creep up sans the proper subtext but still manage a choice respite from Refn’s overweening impudence. In the situation of an unopened door, Refn traces the etches with his camera while we’re left beseeching him to open the damn thing.
Refn again capitalizes on reactionary glances and his characters are rich in them. For the overarching tedium at play, Refn still manages to wrestle strong performances from thinly written characters. The scene is meant to be vampiric, as are the people in the moral decrepitude of the Los Angeles reaches. And like Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the most accomplished female serial killer of all time, these modern day equivalent of countesses practice blood magic of their own. It’s no coincidence their residences are flooded with taxidermied big cats. They’ve turned back time, cancelling exfoliating body peels to guzzle that sweet youth juice and X out those blocking their limelight. Equally devoted to the extremes of preservation as that notorious murderess, these witchy bitches seek rejuvenation upon the outer fringes of morality and that is where The Neon Demon thrives. As Blake Lively just recently discovered, if there’s blood in the water, the sharks will feast. And these sharks feast hard.
CONCLUSION: Like the hackneyed runway model, ‘The Neon Demon’ is all external flash, little internal substance. For the most part. Aggravatingly vacuous but undeniably seductive, Nicholas Winding Refn’s hostile takedown of the LA modeling scene incautiously alienates expectant viewers while stirring up sparse subconscious delights in this warped Fountain of Youth cautionary tale.