REVIEW | 'The Neon Demon' stylish, unsettling, but narratively hollow

Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” tells a twisted version of the cliché story in which the naïve small town girl runs off to L.A. to become a star. In this case, the naïve small town girl is Jesse (Elle Fanning) who goes to L.A. to pursue a modeling career. In no time she begins to climb the ladder of success, getting job after job and becoming the apple of everyone’s eye, making a few of the veteran models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathecote), envious.

“The Neon Demon” is all about the emphasis our culture places on surface level beauty. All the women in the film are obsessed with beauty, solely defined by it and see it as their only means of success/attention. Towards the beginning, Jesse says very blatantly that she’s not talented in any way; all she has is her “looks.” Meanwhile, the men (save for one timid, kind hearted amateur photographer) are sleazy pigs who see women as sex objects and are often the ones who force them to try and attain impossible standards of beauty.

Though, what’s more compelling about the “Neon Demon” is that it highlights the ickiness that often accompanies modeling, particularly female modeling. Jesse is successful not just because she’s pretty but also because she’s young (she recently turned sixteen) and innocent. In one scene, an arrogant fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) auditions women for an upcoming show. After barely acknowledging the slightly older Sarah he’s awestruck by Jesse--captivated by her youth, purity and body language that screams “vulnerable.” There’s an undercurrent of pedophilia and perversion that I found to be deeply unsettling and far more disturbing than some of the more explicit sequences that come later on. 

Refn creates an atmosphere of dread that starts off subdued and gets increasingly unhinged as the film goes on. Refn turns L.A. into a nightmarish hellscape (the heavy use of blood red lighting further stresses this hellish state) that chews people up and spits them back out. Danger lurks around every corner and there’s no one you can trust, not even those who pretend to be your friend.

A majority of this atmosphere comes from sheer style. Much like his characters, Refn is also obsessed with surface level beauty and no one can deny that “The Neon Demon” is aesthetically lush. The meticulously staged shots, (the production design is very neat and symmetrical) combined with the red, purple, pink, green and blue lighting give the film a dreamy elegance. At the same, the film contains scenes of intense and gruesome sequences of violence, sequences that look like they were lifted from a cheap exploitation picture. As he did in his last two features “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” Refn makes brings an art house sensibility to what is essentially a ‘b’ thriller.

Yet, as stylish and unsettling as “The Neon Demon” is, it also feels narratively hollow. The characters are paper thin and difficult to connect with. The only one I really cared about was Jesse and not because she’s a rich character but because I kept worrying that something really bad was going to happen to her. She constantly looks like she’s in danger. Fanning is soft spoken and graceful, having to do a lot of acting with her body and face, but I wanted more from the character. I kept waiting for Jesse to come alive — transition from innocent and vulnerable to more assertive and in control. While there are flashes, she remains frustratingly frail and two-dimensional.

Bearded Keanu Reeves makes a brief but noticeable impression as a sleazy/rapey motel owner, primarily because he’s playing against type. Lee is also strong as a scheming aging model that will do whatever it takes to retain her youth and beauty. However, she isn’t in the film nearly enough, which prevents a potentially intriguing rivalry between her and Jesse from blossoming into anything substantial. This is a shame considering how big a role she plays in the finale. Everyone else, including Jena Malone as an aspiring makeup artist, are sadly unmemorable.

As for the ending, it’s certainly disturbing and disgusting but I couldn’t help but feel a tad underwhelmed. The film acts as though it’s going to slowly build up to some profound and shocking conclusion but that never comes. Instead the outcome feels obvious; in fact the whole movie feels obvious. The film’s overarching themes (the physical and mental costs of fame/beauty for young women and the immense pressure they’re put under) aren’t groundbreaking in the realm of cinema and Refn doesn’t have much to say that’s fresh or innovative. In the end, the film tries to make you think it’s more intricate and deep than it really is through style and window dressing. And some of the more gruesome/disturbing sequences (like one that involves full on necrophilia. Yes, you read that right) are laughable, and come off desperate rather than bold.

“The Neon Demon” isn’t a bad film. It’s aesthetically appealing and it’s bizarre--making it watchable and somewhat intriguing. Additionally, the score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez is spectacular, switching between warm and ambient music to pulsing 80’s slasher movie style synthesizer. But overall the film is more style and shock value than substance.