‘The Neon Demon’
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone
3 (out of 5) Globes
One shouldn’t assume models have little on their minds, and the same goes for Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon.” Like “Drive” and “Bronson,” this fashion world takedown is a crazy/beautiful burlesque of anguish and ultraviolence, soaked in loud colors and a louder electro-score. You could say Refn is a director of style, not ideas. But his style needs to run on ideas — big, provocative, silly ones to match his big, provocative, silly style.
And so we take a Dante-esque trip into the inferno of modeling. We see interchangeable blond stick figures parading before interchangeable disinterested men, only to be dismissed with a point of the finger. Much like the pretty youths of “Logan’s Run” — a movie Refn once threatened to remake — they know they have a shelflife, which they prolong with surgeries: pinning back ears, hacking back jawlines. When two longtime pros (Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee) meet Elle Fanning’s Jesse — a mysterious and not-too-innocent teenage orphan who’s new to town — they seethe with jealousy over her features. Is that her real hair color? Is that her original nose?
They’re victims, but they’re also oppressors. Do they turn on the industry that treats them like priced flesh? No, they turn on each other. As Jesse rises as the industry’s next big thing, her rivals shoot her red hot Telenova stares and, eventually, do far, far worse. It’s a huge stretch to say “The Neon Demon” works as social commentary (or even as a feminist tract), but at heart it’s a funhouse mirror reflection of our tendency to prolong broken, corrupt systems by attacking players, not the game.
But again, that’s ascribing too much thought to a film where one character bangs a corpse. It’s OK with being an abstract and hypnotic mood piece that wants to get us off. Refn is a swaggering dick fetishist and showman — he even puts his initials in the opening credits, a la silent filmmakers like D.W. Griffith — but he knows how to deliver his dodgy kind of goods. He seduces with his precise flair for color and composition, busting out existentialist white photo shoot sets and triangle-mirrors that allow a very game Fanning to give herself a big juicy kiss. At once horrified by this world and drawn to it like a moth to the flame, Refn loves rolling around in the muck. Everyone’s a monster, from the frenemy models to the skeezy photographers to Jena Malone’s maternal-predatory make-up artist to Keanu Reeves, stealing the movie as a fleabog motel king who brags about his prepubescent clientele (“Some real Lolita s—!”)
It’s all often in bad taste, even before the third act goes from stately and hypnotic to full-on Grand Guignol. He goes too far and he knows it, which still doesn’t excuse him being the millionth male filmmaker to use rape as a plot device. Still, where Refn’s last shocker, “Only God Forgives,” ran on ideas that are the actual definition of that misused word “pretentious,” here he has a strong foundation to mostly justify his considerable excesses and to make it deeper than it may even realize.