Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn tosses All About Eve into the blender with alluring moodiness and bloody malice with The Neon Demon, a rapturous, sometimes ingeniously inane, tale of superficial nihilism, and the obsessive pursuit of perfection. At the heart of The Neon Demon lurk tall comely women trying to make it in Los Angeles’ uber-competitive modeling scene. Before the camera they’re titillating works of art sculpted by the hand of God (or a plastic surgeon); inwardly, however, they’re loathsome vampires rapaciously seeking virginal blood (or the next nip and tuck) to preserve their fleeting immortal superiority.
Refn whose prior efforts, Drive and Only God Forgives were stylish smorgasbords, finds another gear here, serving up the pulsating rhythms of the L.A. night-scape perfectly atop the ominous waves of Cliff Martinez’s techno score. The effect calls to mind the haunting hypnotic cadence of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Without much awareness, you’re pulled under and completely immersed.
Arc wise, The Neon Demon may hit a few logistical WTFs, but they never sap its ability to beguile. The opener, a slow draw back framing a statuesque beauty on a velvet settee, her face painted in glitter and her neck seemingly slashed as shutter flashes from across the room abound, is an entrancing provocation. Is she a victim of the titular being, are we looking at a police crime scene or are we drinking in some kind of strange performance art? To tell you would be to dispel the lurid wonderment that is the film’s magnetic draw.
The main character of Refn’s film is an ingenue by the name of Jesse (Elle Fanning) who’s come to LA to become its next top model. Blessed with round luminous blue eyes and a knowing sensual aura under a milk-breed exterior, we learn in a terse interview with a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks) that Jesse, just 16, possesses what every Gisele Bündchen wannabe wants, that je ne sais quoi that lights up a room. Far from her Midwest roots and sans parents (we never really get the full details as to what happened and when) Jesse’s every part the lamb that wandered into the lion’s den, and to prove that point she comes home one night to the seedy motel she’s staying in, to find a massive mountain lion trashing her room. But fear not, Keanu Reeves, as the disheveled desk manager, and an intrepid cohort who’s handy with a baseball bat are on hand to take care of things.
Throughout the dread-leaden pursuit of paper dreams, everyone around Jesse seems to harbor a hidden agenda. Even Ruby (Jenna Malone), the aspiring makeup artist who more regularly applies her craft at the morgue where she beautifies corpses for their final journey, appears to want something more than just friendship when she first offers Jesse a paper towel to wipe off a copious slather of makeup. The higher Jesse rises on the runway rung, regularly besting leggy sorts that would give most straight teenage boys days of frustration, the more frenetic, fraught, and hollow the journey becomes. Happiness is not a measure of success. As one astute player in the biz remarks, beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Much like Cronenberg, Refn projects man’s folly outward in hideous horror show strokes.
By the end, The Neon Demon lives up to the macabre implications of its title — there’s necrophilia, the consumption of human flesh, and, yes, even worse. Fanning with her wholesome good looks anchors Refn’s mad world, bridging alien innocence and contrived puppetmastery with convincing aplomb, but it’s Malone who takes the risks, having to bear her soul and ambition both bloodied and naked. Her Ruby’s the one Refn’s most clearly enchanted with. It’s almost as if he’s playing god with her, trying to push her in directions to see how she’ll react. And LA, which is reduced to a little shop of horrors, is a purgatory for all the vain to act out their self-interested acts, however unbridled and repugnant. The Neon Demon is a lurid spectacle of vapid vanity, underscored by violence and pettiness. It’s also a beauty to behold and an ugly pill to swallow.