Get over yourself, NWR.
A monogram of Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s initials fashionably accompanies the first handful of opening title cards. This movie most certainly has NWR’s fingerprints all over it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Refn’s made highly-acclaimed fare such as Drive and Bronson, but Only God Forgives was widely pummeled. The Neon Demon is not a source pool for a new round of accolades.
A dramatic, electronic score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic) sets the tone and builds anticipation for some sort of action or thrills. Unfortunately, the dry, slow-burn pace of the early going devolves into sheer mind-bending nonsense.
It all revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning, Maleficent), a fresh 16-year-old girl who’s traveled to Los Angeles in pursuit of a modeling career. She’s all alone. Her parents are — for whatever reason — gone. Jesse admittedly has no particular talent or skill, but she’s got great skin and the perfect profile. She knows she can make money off her looks.
This setup allows NWR to spend 2 hours indulging in the oft-explored world of supermodels, exclusivity, insecurity, isolation and... violence.
Profile of Beauty
Thematically, there’s absolutely nothing new here. It’s all about NWR’s visual flair, this time collaborating with cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Rover). It’s great to look at and that’s where the interesting ideas reside: in the presentation. Much like the vapid models on display, though, that means this movie is also nothing more than an exercise in style over substance.
There’s the stark white set of a photographer’s studio; the photographer and his subject seamlessly begin to seemingly walk on air as all physical definitions of boundaries disappear on the set. Great effects with lighting, including the photo session that starts the movie and introduces Jesse. Mirrors, night clubs, outlandish costumes — all the staples of high fashion are presented in high cinematic style.
At one point, Jesse’s newfound friend Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice) blows out a puff of cigarette smoke and quips, “I’m a ghost.” Nicely done. A good moment of film style enhancing dialogue.
“Beauty is the only thing” is the mantra of the movie’s lead characters. Maybe that’s all NWR’s after as well: this movie about the shallow, supremely good-looking world of fashion and beauty is itself a shallow, supremely good-looking piece of filmmaking. It’s like interviewing a supermodel who hasn’t lived a day without being told she’s the most beautiful person in the world – and yet having nothing particularly interesting to stay in return.
Turn Off the Dark
The tension rapidly goes off the rails in the third act. That’s when – and this isn’t a spoiler zone – one character, who works part-time as a cadaver makeup artist, engages in lesbian necrophilia with a pretty corpse. And then there’s a cat fight between three models wielding knives. All that leads to off-screen cannibalism and the on-screen vomiting up of an eyeball.
That eyeball is then picked up and consumed by another model.
Maybe the biggest shocker here is that this hot mess was co-written by NWR and two women — first-time feature screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham.
Jesse is constantly singled out as the new “it” girl — and repeatedly advised to tell people she’s 19. She’s something new in this world where beautiful girls come and go; hot models make a splash on the scene and then — at least in this movie’s jaundiced view — disappear from the radar after being eaten alive.
Is it all a clever farce? No doubt some will think so.
Do You Think I’m Human?
Even at the real-life age of 18, Elle Fanning has already proven herself as a capable actress. Here, though, her character is so distant from everybody she comes across as more replicant than human. She’s hard to sympathize with or even feel protective of as she goes from naïve, wide-eyed newcomer to part of the machinery.
And — just maybe — it’s a cautionary tale for millennials accustomed to hearing how great they are. After her semi-boyfriend finds the snootiness of her newfound friends hard to stomach, Jesse makes the keen observation she doesn’t want to be one of them. They want to be her.
From there, her life spirals right down the drain.
By the end of it all, that atmospheric electronic score begins to sound more and more like a mash-up of Blade Runner and Flash Gordon and the desire builds to turn it off.
Couple that with no real sense of tragedy or loss — a dramatic sacrifice in the name of having no sympathetic characters — and any poignancy is lost in the face of a silly, laughable conclusion that lacks punch.