This is the second time that I have seen The Neon Demon and I was in no way prepared to enjoy this at all. As a matter of fact, I chose to review this movie because I wanted to tear off whatever flesh was stilling clinging to the carcass of this box office bomb while it was still above ground. Sadly, my second viewing brought more disappointment than righteous indignation. The Neon Demon is yet another example of too much style and not enough substance.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a small-town high school dropout, as she uses her youth and beauty to make a splash in the Los Angeles modeling world. Using the photos that Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur photographer and LA native, took of her, Jesse lands a test shoot with photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and eventually a runway job closing the show for world class fashion designer Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). Jesse’s innocence and natural beauty bring several characters into her orbit that seek to obstruct Jesse for their own reasons. This includes Ruby (Jenna Malone), a makeup artist to both the living and the dead, Hank (Keanu Reeves) the sketchy landlord of Jesse’s motel residence, as well as Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), two fashion models nearing the end of their industry prime. Each of these characters attempts to destroy Jesse’s modeling career before it even starts from the moment they show up on screen.
Despite these threats to Jesse’s life and career, the biggest threat to Jesse is her innocence. Throughout the film, Jesse puts herself into dangerous situations that could have been avoided if she was not so naïve. Jesse allows Jack to fondle her naked body with gold paint for the sake of art, pushes away her almost-boyfriend and only real support system Dean, and opens herself up to both rape and murder by entertaining both Hank and Ruby. She even drops out of high school and leaves her hometown alone at the age of 16 just because she was told that she was pretty all he life and could not find anything else that she had a talent in. If Jesse had some experience under her belt to back up her dreams, all her misfortune in the film would not have occurred.
Nicolas Winding Refn wields a tight control over the style of The Neon Demon throughout the entire film. Every choice that Refn makes about cinematography, and production design, and music accurately depict both the harshness and vibrance of modeling world in a way that only Refn could. Refn’s control of the story, however, is akin to a freshly washed dog: all it wants to do is escape and roll in the dirt without any thought towards the significance behind its actions. Neon Demon is jam packed with striking imagery and quotable lines but lacks the connective tissue necessary to establish the film’s theme. Is this film condemning the actions of its characters or justifying them by citing art? Why does Jesse suffer her fate at the end of the movie? Was it because of jealousy? Pride? Unrequited Love? Temptation? What is the driving force behind the plot?
The closest Refn gets to a fully connected reason for any of the film’s moments is near the end of the second act. Jesse and Dean go to eat after the runway and find themselves in the same place as Roberto Sarno, Gigi, and another model from the show. One of the models talks about not being chosen for an acting gig because of her physical appearance to which Gigi, nicknamed the Bionic Woman, states that the model could easily fix his face. Sarno advises against this claiming that anyone can spot the difference between natural and manufactured beauty. Sarno pulls Dean and Jesse in to prove this and then states that only physical beauty is what matters in our society. Dean protests and says that the internal characteristics of person count just as much as the physical beauty one possesses. Sarno counters by saying what could have been the focal point of the entire film “Well I think that if she [Jesse] wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t have even stopped to look. Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The entire scene is powerful and forces the audience to question the motives of every character while the entire heap of potential storytelling fall into the abyss in exchange for more scenes with flashy color and meaningless corpse-fucking.
Because of the beautiful tapestry of this film and the special space I have in my heart of artsy movies like this, I generously give The Neon Demon 6 out of a possible 10 points. Nicolas Winding Refn’s passion and intentions are commended despite his failure to yet again overcome the temptation to prioritize style over substance. If you want to watch more of Refn’s work, watch Drive starring Ryan Gosling. If you want an artful film that brings a good balance of aggressive style and substance, watch Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. And if you want another example of a director’s failure to stop style from beating the ever living crap out of substance, watch Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.