The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)
O beauty! O torpor! O glory! O pain! Has the world ever seen such an example of positive qualities co-existing with their opposite? Is pulchritude but an illusion that decays upon inspection? More importantly, can an aesthetic designed to replicate the sins of the milieu it portrays be any more than a superficial treatment of that milieu?
Pardon the hyperbole, but in The Neon Demon, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) seems to beg for such overweening attention. An over-designed objet d’art par excellence, the film is graceful and lovely in every frame, even as the blood flows freely, but ultimately as empty as its thinly drawn characters. If it has a takeaway message (and, unfortunately, it does), it is that beauty – currency of the realm – is only skin deep, yet we are prepared to consume ourselves (and others) to attain it. Women, in particular – those poor, helpless creatures – turn killers when you threaten their status in the beauty chain. Call it Refn’s new aesthetic of misogynistic empowerment, if you will.
The problem here – beyond the fact that this is hardly a fresh topic – is that the film is as listless as the models at its center. Gorgeous? Yes. Meaningful? No. Elle Fanning (Maleficent), a young actress of substance who is the best part of this experience, plays Jesse, a waif of a 16-year-old who comes to Los Angeles with big dreams. Think David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., only without the quirky intelligence. A fresh face, she soon finds herself both desired and hated, often by the same people. It all points to something awful, and those markers lead us exactly where we think they will.
Despite the utter vacuity on display, there are some fine performances. Jena Malone (The Rusted), as the makeup artist who takes young Jesse under her wing, manages to make the combination of passion and lethargy feel compelling. Keanu Reeves (John Wick), in an uncharacteristically villainous role as the owner of the squalid motel where Jesse lives, is deeply repellant as a man without virtue, and very watchable. But other than these few standouts, The Neon Demon is nothing more than an exercise in production design, where everything is as it seems. Style is substance, in other words, and what you see is what you get, and nothing more.