The Neon Demon (2016)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s movies have always attracted me like a bug to a zapper. They’re bright and pretty and hypnotic from a distance, but I always regret it afterward. If “What is art?” is a mind-numbing puzzle, “What is an art film?” is just as much of a conundrum. Who knows, really? Refn probably thinks he knows. He put a lot of effort into framing his latest piece, “The Neon Demon,” in ways that make us question what we’re watching. He’s effective at that. But the movie itself? “The Neon Demon” is a psychologically troubling, biting satire of the girl-eat-girl world of professional modeling. Or it tries to be, at least. More so, it feels like going out to the clubs after a long day, when you’re ready for bed but your friends insist you come along. It’s a slow, tiring barrage of neon lights (Refn is colorblind, so he often uses high-contrast color combinations that are for his own benefit as much as ours) and fake blood (some of it’s fake in the plot, too) that stays consistently underwhelming until the slightly more interesting final scenes.
After deciding to skip the last couple years of high school to get a jump start on her modeling career, Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves into a shitty motel in Los Angeles. Immediately, casting directors see her raw and innocent beauty. She makes quick friends with her first makeup stylist, Ruby (Jena Malone), and Ruby’s model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But once Jesse starts landing modeling gigs that might have otherwise gone to Gigi or Sarah, the mean girl trio gets downright nasty.
Full of nervous and uncomfortable silences, “The Neon Demon” (not unlike “Drive” or Refn’s “Only God Forgives”) could have slimmed thirty minutes off its runtime and still felt like forever. It doesn’t help that Jena Malone (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Sucker Punch”) isn’t cut out for that much screen time. Elle Fanning is, as she showed us in “Super 8” back when she was just a tween, but here she doesn’t get the materials she needs to succeed—a good supporting cast, a good script, a good director. She gets Keanu Reeves for a few scenes, but as the most seasoned actor on the cast he mostly treats his role as a vacation, not so much acting his lines as simply reciting them. Instead, Fanning is just a type—just the thin, blonde, quiet, young actress they needed. Once they got that far, they didn’t bother to give her a role worth playing. Regardless, Fanning’s honest naivety looks perfect on her character. She does what she can.
“The Neon Demon” is another flashy, pretty, sexy, unfinished mess passed off as art-house horror…just what Nicolas Winding Refn probably hoped it would be.