This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad
What are we looking at?
The Neon Demon‘s first tableau features Elle Fanning, throat slit and reclining on a chaise lounge floating over a pool of photogenic crimson blood. It’s so perfectly lit and shaped it begs to be honored as a metaphoric pedestal exalting her death. Is the obviously smitten man photographing all of this her serial killer who missed his calling as an art director?
No. As it turns out the man is just a naive photographer named Dean (played by rising actor Karl Glusman), and she’s just a 16 year-old amateur model named Jesse (played by perpetually in-demand and newly 18 starlet Elle Fanning) trying to fill out her ‘book’ so she can land a big time modeling agency. And this off-putting but hypnotic opening scene is just writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) provocative bid to grab our attention. This first image promises a creepy, colorful, sadistic, eroticized visual spectacle about the commodification and objectification and… uh… murder of beautiful women. Whatever sins you might be willing to condemn the movie for committing, you can’t say that it’s a liar. It delivers what it’s promising.
Jesse is immediately well-liked or lusted after by a hot fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola, hilariously dismissive… unless he’s interested), a famous photographer (Desmond Harrington, silent and creepy… did he learn that on Dexter?), and a powerful modeling agency executive (Christina Hendricks, still mesmerizing post Mad Men). She also befriends two models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who actually hate her – because where would a fashion picture be without diva catfighting? — and a super friendly makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who exudes both genuine warmth and unmistakable shadiness. Yes, Jena Malone steals the whole picture with that neato acting trick.
The Neon Demon gets progressively weirder and campier as it progresses which should endear certain audiences to it (*raises hand, shamelessly*). And yet it’s also so bereft of ideas beyond juvenile proclamations like “Women are jealous bitches! Men are rapists! Gays are predatory! Fashion world is evil! Beauty is fascism!” that there’s not much to grab on to other than its bold strokes ridiculousness.
In this case the cliché is true: beauty really is skin deep.
The most surreal touches (a wild animal here, a cryptic visual triangle there) don’t totally pay off either. Perhaps the hollow center is Jesse herself? If she’s meant to be more than a cypher (perhaps she’s not) than Elle Fanning’s blank stares and slow-to-get-it dialogue don’t help. As the provocations mount — culminating in a few truly repellent scenes which may yet earn the movie a place in cult history — they offer diminishing returns. But damn it the movie is Sickeningly Gorgeous. And that’s “sickening” in both the Webster’s and the Gay Vernacular definitions.
Though Nicolas Winding Refn once seemed like an abnormally obsessive young auteur (see the violent and very naked Bronson starring Tom Hardy) and then maybe even like a true visionary (see Drive’s minimalist verve maximized by visual flair) his last two pictures, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon have not exactly made good on his international promise. The violence is starting to feel like a crutch, for one, a means to its own end. But all that said, Refn hasn’t yet lost his flair for striking iconography, or his aggressive visual confidence in both composition and content … but in the service of what?
Those of you who love deranged movies, future cult curios, or the cocky perversity of three name Danish auteurs (see also Lars von Trier) should run to the theater immediately — it’s not that it’s “good” but it’s unmissable if you fall into these categories.
Anyone else may want to steer clear of this bloody show. Sometimes the blood is fake and sometimes it’s real, but either way that catwalk is slippery, and who wants to be fashion roadkill?
Grade: B/D Yes, I'll reconsider it in a few years if needs be...
Oscar Chances: In a perfect world, AMPAS could set content and narrative aside for aesthetic consideration. We don't live in that kind of world, Thelma.