Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is a candy coated, neon drenched homage to classic 1980’s psychodramas. It alternately recalls Michael Mann in its obsessiveness with composed images, impeccably dressed, always cool, disconnected main characters, and absurdly loud, pulsating soundtracks, as well as Brian De Palma for its narrative chutzpah and bravura set pieces. Toss in a little Paul Verhoeven and you should have a fun, outrageous time at the movies. Unfortunately, The Neon Demon doesn’t have the soul that generally percolates under Mann’s films nor De Palma’s skill in pulling off outrageous moments. What you end up with is a loud, pretentious mess that occasionally coughs up some really impressive moments.
The plotline is simple. Gorgeous, fresh-faced country girl Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes to Los Angeles to make it as a model. She befriends make-up artist Ruby (a cool, cynical Jena Malone), who is her introduction and guide to the byzantine, dangerous world of modeling. Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) complete the posse as models on their way out at age 26. The rest of the plot considers Jesse’s rapid rise and the jealousy and lust it engenders. And really that’s it. There are a lot of gorgeous set pieces set to atmospheric techno, courtesy of Cliff Martinez, with some weird mystical portents. And neon. Lots of neon.
There is potential here for camp, and while the visuals and dialogue and some of the performances beg for it, Refn plays it almost completely straight-faced, sucking the energy right out of the film. It’s hard to tell if he is taking this seriously, pretending to take this seriously, or if Demon is so meta that the joke is that he is taking seriously what we know shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s a lot of thought to put into what is essentially cotton candy—cotton candy for David Lynch, but cotton candy nonetheless.
Fanning gives a lovely performance and endows the film with what little heart it has. It’s heartbreaking to watch a girl who believes beauty is her only asset get barraged by men and slandered and shamed by woman. She endows Jesse with a depth that allows us to sympathize with her even as she succumbs to the shallowness and pettiness that is Refn’s LA. Malone has fun in a role that’s essentially a politically incorrect cliché, though she fails to update or transcend said cliché. Keanu Reeves seems to be the only one who really understands the film that he is in. He plays a sleazy motel owner with such enthusiastic vigor you chuckle the minute he’s on screen. No one in the history of film has slammed a metal cage door with such élan, and Reeves does it multiple times. It’s a riot.
Kudos also goes to Martinez, who, in his score, manages to pay homage to Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter while creating a unique soundscape of his own. A chill out techno score awash in a bed of sweeping chords and glistening arpeggios, it is a work of art in itself. One wishes Refn could have coalesced his influences and done the same.