PLOT: An untainted 16 year old girl with grand dreams of superstardom gets a cruel wakeup call when subjected to the seedy underbelly of Hollywood's fashion industry.
REVIEW: 20 years after loudly announcing his arrival to the world of cinema with his debut feature PUSHER, Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn has tallied his titillating 10th feature, THE NEON DEMON - a visually arresting but emotionally vacuous hyperbolic cautionary tale on the pitfalls tumultuous trappings of Hollywood. Par for the course for Refn, who tends to favor excessive style over substantive subject matter, often crafting his stories around images he wants to show rather than allowing the story he wants to tell to organically dictate the shots depicted. As a self-proclaimed "fetish filmmaker" who "shoots what he wants to see", this kind of reverse engineering makes perfect sense. And truthfully, when a fine balance is struck between the two poles, a la DRIVE, Refn grooves right inside the sweet spot. When he teeters too far in one direction, he gets into trouble, a la ONLY GOD FORGIVES. That said, although it tends to consequentially lack a lot of substance, THE NEON DEMON still somehow manages to be a starkly sedating and seductive cinematic succubus!
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a fresh faced pillar of purity - young, innocent, naive, gorgeous - who instantly lands a modeling gig when arriving in Hollywood. After a macabre photo shoot, Jesse meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a curious consigliore of sorts who will ferry Jesse through the industry as the new ingénue in town. This includes attending a party that night, where Jesse meets a couple of vapid, ultra-competitive automatons, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who drip with insecurity at the sight of the younger, thinner Jesse. Also introduced are Hank (Keanu Reeves), a sordid lowlife motel owner overseeing the room Jesse stays in, and Dean (Karl Glusman), a potential love interest and only real friend Jesse thinks she can trust. When Jesse lands a meeting with a high-profile agency, she's told by the unscrupulous Jan (Christina Hendricks) to lie about her age...to say she's 19, not 16. Illegal indeed. This southward direction on the moral Hollywood compass instantly informs Jesse, who at that age, is quite impressionable. She agrees to fib about her age, and soon she's going up against - and besting - Gigi and Sarah in a modeling line headed by a character known only as Fashion Designer (a hilarious turn from Alessandro Nivola). As you might guess, the spurned waifs aren't too keen.
In fact, they swear irreparable revenge. I won't go into too many particulars, but suffice it to say, the ultra-violent staples of Refn's work aren't forgotten here...to the twisted tune of knife-blade-deep-throats, eyeball vomiting, Sapphic necrophilia, vaginal blood disemboguement, the works. It's here that the movie is most memorable...the pristinely framed, lavishly lit, beauteously composed pictures of abject grotesquery. The titular neon palate the movie is bathed in - the whole of it festooned in fanciful filigree - reinforces such, even alluding to the candy-colored allure of tinsel-wrapped Hollywood illusions. But there's a coldblooded seduction to it all, a detached obduracy that never really allows for any sort of emotional resonance or intellectual stimulation to take hold. The paper-thin plot and vaporously drawn stereotypes of beauty-obsessed starlets only draw ire, not empathy. Even Elle Fanning, clearly the strongest virtue of the movie, tries to but hardly imbues her character with any semblance of feeling that allows for even a modicum of a rooting interest. Thing is, intentional or not, it isn't enough. We only care for her by proxy, when comparing her to the other loathsome and lecherous ladies. Beyond that, there isn't a whole lot to cling to.
Now, if all this is by design, if the movie is honestly intended as one scathing indictment on the vapidity of Hollywood - how the fakes, phonies and falsities of the land are rewarded over all else - then the movie succeeds in striking a resonant chord. Indeed, Hollywood is THE NEON DEMON. The problem is, Refn has a history of making movies of style over substance, ones that are prettier to look at than to think about or stir up emotions. It's therefore hard to discern the intent here. However, to quote one of the Nivola character's most salient lines, he professes to Jesse that "beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing." Well, that one sentence can pretty much sum up the entire flick...it offers a sumptuous spectacle and not much else. In terms of the tempo, there's a wistful languor to the editing, a deliberate choice for a deliberate pace, which results in a dreamy, sedate, semi-somnolent quality that makes it all feel a bit surreal. Nothing wrong with that on its own, but it does tend to tamp down any realistic mores the movie may or may not be trying to spotlight. It's this sort of hypnotic hold that makes me think that Refn didn't intend a grand statement, but again favored the visual over the subtextual.
Which is fine. As an outright horror flick, the movie delivers enough grisly goodies and eerie scenarios to satiate most genre fans. It just never transcends the superficial. At least, not the in the way we'd expect from Refn when operating at top form. The movie is undoubtedly gorgeous to leer at and become entranced by, all the way from casting to set design (itself quite a feat), but the horror of the story never pierces the heart in a way that really leaves an un-healable scar. That said, Elle Fanning does have a kind of inexhaustible charm that goes a long way in this sort of movie, particularly when everyone around her is so detestable. Along with the profligate violence, it's Fanning's performance that really mark the major merits of the movie. So, if you're a Refn fan, chances are you'll cotton to THE NEON DEMON pretty closely, knowing full well he tends to adhere to visual style over thought provoking substance. If you're okay with that, then you're bound to enjoy what THE NEON DEMON ultimately becomes...a powerful if puzzling anti-paean on the cutthroat Hollywood fashion industry.