Film Review: The Neon Demon

A scathing, highly stylized thriller of fashion-world monstrousness.
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Nicholas Winding Refn’s belief in man’s inherent bestiality has always aligned him with Stanley Kubrick, and with 2013’s Only God Forgives, so too did his chilly, deliberate, meticulously composed aesthetics. Refn’s affinity for Kubrick continues with The Neon Demon, a tale of L.A. fashion-industry monstrousness that—despite standing as his first film to focus exclusively on women—again finds the Danish auteur painting an art-installation-cool portrait of mankind as a species defined by its basest animalistic impulses. Come for the arrogant aloof models, stay for the rape, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism.

Marked by dreamy slow-motion and molasses-like pans across environments that have been set-decorated to the point of life-extinguishing sterility, The Neon Demon operates with such a severe sense of poetic self-importance that it practically dares you to call it pretentious. Refn stages his every scene with a languorousness that’s meant to generate dread, and his use of an alternately pulsating and twinkling electronica score only further positions the action as an unhurried descent into hell—which here takes the form of Los Angeles’ superficial, lethally competitive modeling world.

This fetid environment’s newest resident is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old naïf whose slender beauty and unspoiled innocence quickly turn her into an object of universal affection. Opening with the sight of its protagonist splayed out on a couch coated in (fake) blood, The Neon Demon takes its nightmarish time detailing the teenager’s acclimation to her sordid surroundings. In this rotten milieu, she’s wooed by a sincere (if still subtly licentious) boyfriend (Karl Glusman), asked to lie about her age by an agent (Christina Hendricks), is taken under the wing of a makeup artist (Jena Malone), openly loathed by two competing models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), and turned into an instant star by a photographer (Desmond Harrington) and designer (Alessandro Nivola) who instinctively recognize in her that unique “thing” that separates the great from the good. It’s a rather routine premise that Refn energizes with escalating unholy surrealism, as with a pivotal scene in which Jesse, on the runway, imagines herself confronting her more assured doppelganger in a glowing triangular prism, where she kisses reflections of herself—a depiction of a virginal girl embracing her ferocious sexual power that’s conveyed in purely abstract terms.

As in Drive and Only God Forgives, Refn’s work is color-coded to express and enhance mood, and his pacing is almost absurdly unhurried, such that each line of dialogue is separated by seconds of intense dead-air staring. The Neon Demon often feels like a hybrid of A Clockwork Orange and Beyond the Black Rainbow, infused—especially during its home stretch—with the biting sense of humor (and symbolic triangle-centric imagery) of the former and the out-there spaciness of the latter. Even when its momentum grinds to a borderline-torturous standstill, Refn’s stylization allows the film to tap into the fetid stew of jealousy, fear, desire and rage that drives the fashion industry, where everyone is terrified of being replaced, eager to plastic-surgery mutilate themselves (echoed by the stuffed animals that fill Refn’s frame), and desperate to be and/or destroy those higher up on the hierarchical ladder.

Refn’s fetishistic formalism echoes his content, objectifying his characters—led by a magnetic Fanning, who’s first ethereal and then savage—in a manner similar to that of his fashion-industry cretins. From Keanu Reeves’ rape-y motel manager to Malone’s twisted friend, everyone involved is covetous, cagey and capable of perverse violence, and Refn ultimately allows them all to indulge in their terrifying true appetites, climaxing with an eroticized finale of corpse sex, killing and flesh consumption that turns The Neon Demon into the sickest of satirical jokes.

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