“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
So says a fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola in The Neon Demon, the new arty psychodrama from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Set in the Los Angeles modeling world, the film follows fresh-off-the-bus future star Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she is forced to maneuver through a world of unsavory mentors, jealous rivals, rape-y photographers, and… well… rape-y everyone else. Early on in the film, an experienced model sums up the common reactions to a beautiful woman like this: “Who’s she fucking? Who could she fuck? How high can she get, and is it higher than me?”
Unsurprisingly, Refn finds the modeling business alternately risible and worthy of scorn, but his approach to the subject matter is less an exposé or satire than it is a dark, distracted fairy tale. While not a horror film in the traditional sense, The Neon Demon pitches most of its action in an eerie purgatory between reality and nightmare. Striking images and trippy digressions take precedence over conventional storytelling in what feels like a (slightly) less intense return to the bizarro L.A. that David Lynch brought to the screen in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
In this setting, Elle Fanning, with her open face, soft eyes, and curly blond locks, can’t help but look like an innocent lamb being prepped for the slaughter. Never one to err on the side of subtlety, Refn makes sure this fragile vision of his heroine is firmly in the viewer’s mind from frame one. He opens The Neon Demon on an image of Jesse lying on a couch with her throat slit and blood pouring out onto the floor. This turns out to be a staged image for a photo shoot, but it’s far from the last uncomfortable situation Jesse will be put in before the credits roll. Assured by her new agent (Christina Hendricks) that it will be good for her career, Jesse submits to a session with a superstar photographer who immediately clears the set, has Jesse strip naked, and then smears her body in gold paint. (For readers turned off — or turned on — by this idea, it’s worth noting that the scene in question plays almost entirely in a close-up on Jesse’s face.)
Jesse’s natural beauty is a blessing and a curse; it draws people to her, but inevitably these are people who just want a piece. A young photographer (Karl Glusman) tries to be Jesse’s boyfriend without really understanding her. Two over-the-hill-at-25 rivals, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), pretend to seek friendship but really just want Jesse’s youth to somehow rub off on them. Keanu Reeves has an amusingly atypical bit part as a scuzzy motel owner whose unusual proclivities threaten Jesse’s safety. Alessandro Nivola’s designer comes off as wickedly funny, coyly communicating the sexual charge he gets from staring at Jesse as she auditions her runway walk. During some of Jesse’s interactions with other characters, Refn goes so far as to replicate images one would associate with classic vampire movies: the superstar photographer staring longingly at Jesse’s neck or Sarah impulsively sucking the blood from a fresh wound on Jesse’s hand.
Jena Malone — who has seemingly cornered the market on seen-it-all women in their late 20s — plays a make-up artist who wants to help Jesse avoid the dangers that she has seen too many other girls fall prey to. At least, that seems to be her intention at first. Like Drive, The Neon Demon is fairly laconic, which gives every dialogue scene a feeling of awkward foreboding. So while Malone’s make-up artist tries to act ingratiating, there’s a lingering sense that she’s got an ulterior motive just like everyone else.
The most interesting wrinkle in Refn’s bizarre tapestry is the gradually revealed pleasure that Jesse takes in exploiting — and allowing others to exploit — her beauty. She is not just an innocent virgin corrupted by a despicable industry; she is culpable in her own corruption. Although Jesse is slow to admit it, she is as hungry for stardom and power as the embittered women who surround her, and she thoroughly enjoys being top dog for the moment.
This tense dynamic sets up the film’s final quarter, where Refn stops suggesting the disgusting thoughts lurking in his characters’ heads and allows them the chance to act them out. While there are other reviews online that have already spoiled some of the goriest and most unsettling images Refn conjures to close out his film, I feel like it’s worth preserving the surprise here instead. Needless to say, as in many fairy tales about naughty girls who transgress, Jesse is basically punished for her vanity and ambition.
Now, is this a bizarrely conservative stance for a film made in 2016? Maybe, if you take the film as seriously as all that. Instead, The Neon Demon — like any solid horror-thriller — seems designed to be reacted to, rather than thought about. The film casts a hypnotic spell, thanks largely to its colorful design, beautiful stars, and thumping EDM soundtrack. It’s a beguiling enough concoction that the fact that The Neon Demon doesn’t also offer deep, cogent analysis to compliment its giddy and provocative images is hardly a drawback.
The Neon Demon arrives in theaters this Friday, June 24.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.