'The Neon Demon' Is A Profoundly Stupid Critique Of Hollywood Superficiality
Nicolas Wining Refn, the Danish director attempting brand himself as a bad boy of American pulp, has made his latest film a literally airless affair. Nary a scene in The Neon Demon, auspiciously set in the Hollywood world of high-fashion, passes with any background noise beyond Cliff Martinez's electronic beats. When Refn features sequences of dialogue, the air seems to have been sucked out of the room. You might wonder where's the honking of traffic or the chirping of crickets at night, or how every surface has been shined to perfection; even a beat up car features no dust. Refn, who made a splash at Cannes with Ryan Gosling in Drive then lost his converted with Only God Forgives, has doubled down on artificiality to get closer to his own personal vision. After all, it's his name that gets top billing.
It's a shame that so many talented actors have lined up to work with Refn, but at least abandoning Gosling's empty macho stares for Elle Fanning's doe-eyed glances gives The Neon Demon a little more texture. Fanning plays Jesse, a newly minted 16-year-old whose apparent purity makes her a quick sensation to everyone around her after arriving in Los Angeles. She quickly befriends Ruby (Jena Malone, sporting a redhead bob), who introduces her to two more successful but much more fragile friends (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). Jesse immediately attracts photographers and models to gigs, though her desires remain somewhat mysterious—she keeps being drawn to hallucinations of a mysterious triangle—as the pale-faced beauty becomes the new It Girl.
The Neon Demon attempts a sincere expose of the fashion industry and the fakeness of Hollywood, but little in either its milieu or its psychological terrain will spark as authentic. Certain lines—a model laughingly noting, "Once you're 21 you're dead in this industry"—spark some needed humor. But Refn, who has often claimed Grimm's Fairy Tales as his main influence, departs from realism at every opportune moment, art-directing each sequence with intensely hued colors and metallic surfaces to create his dark fantasy. The idea that only a superficial world could critique the superficial world of modeling might feel apt, but The Neon Demon's provocations feel more like a starting point for the hallucinatory imagery Refn has dreamed up.
(Just how accurate is the world of modeling as portrayed in The Neon Demon? Let two models explain.)
Whether that imagery itself is engaging will depend on viewers' taste for the bizarre and a tolerance for pretentiousness. Monochrome rooms filled with mannequin-esque bodies form sterile shapes in the frame. Camera movement usually means a cloying dolly shot tracking sideways across a room (read: showing off). A two-second pause occurs between every flat reading of dialogue (all of it banal), as the director mimics the worst of his European influences. Only Keanu Reeves as a menacing motel owner speaking the phrase "real Lolita shit" is genuinely terrifying through his husky body. Some may find the world of The Neon Demon to create genuine eye candy as the narrative becomes more and more dream-like, but this forgets that these sequences are only a few in between some truly dreadful dialogue sequences that pad out to a two hour running time.
If The Neon Demon truly wanted to critique this world, however, it would feel more attuned to the psychology of its characters. A certain twist regarding the sexual orientation of a character is a crass and quite shallow turn that feels especially ignorant in this supposed paean to the plight of young women. That the camera ogles the bodies of Fanning and the other tall, extremely slender women is a moot point given the film is ostensibly a critique. But anyone finding something profound within Refn's world is fooling themselves; this is a profoundly stupid movie. Expect to see The Neon Demon playing at the background of college dorm parties in which a bro declares he became a feminist after seeing it. He won't know what "lemonade" is beyond a beverage.
The Neon Demon opens everywhere today.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.