Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) is perhaps the only living director who could take a film that’s essentially about cannibal supermodels and a necrophilic makeup artist — with detours for a menacing, knife-wielding Keanu Reeves — and make it into something dreadfully boring and exhaustingly pretentious. That is a special kind of talent. What Refn has made here with his latest, The Neon Demon, is Art with a capital “a,” which amounts to a lot of languid camera movement, pop colors and the kind of electronic music that sounds like the “Cosmic” iPhone ringtone. And, to crank up the import of all this, he spends the entire time fetishizing the filmographies of Stanley Kubrick and (God help us) Mario Bava. The Neon Demon is trashy pulp nonsense at its heart, but Refn never understands that junk should be fun.
Refn has very little to say but feels very strongly about his need to say it. The Neon Demon is — nothing more, nothing less — a film about the shallowness of the fashion industry and our perceptions of physical beauty, told in the most shallow way imaginable. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a sort of Dirk Diggler-type creation (we’re constantly told ad nauseam how naturally beautiful she is) who shows up in Los Angeles at age 16 to become a model and immediately begins turning heads — and making other models jealous. She’s taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone), a wise and helpful makeup artist, and begins seeing a young photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman). But her promise soon attracts attention, things begin to fall apart and her life turns more violent and surreal. A mountain lion shows up in her dingy hotel room; the hotel manager (Reeves) may or may not be stalking her and her neighbor); she begins to have visions and nightmares (fans of Italian horror films will point to “dream logic,” as opposed to the nonsense it really is).
This all leads to a climax (followed by a never-ending parade of denouements) that’s supposed to be either offensive or shocking but instead comes across as unintentionally funny, thanks to Refn’s piddling pace and inability to simply entertain. There’s enough striking and — more importantly — nonsensical imagery here to make it all feel like art. It’s vague enough to seem like Refn has something to say, but the end result feels vapid and childish. When he does come out and just get to the point (like the foreshadowing of a character wearing lipstick with the eye-rolling name of Redrum), he’s heavy-handed and clumsy with kind of pointed, obvious and none-too-thoughtful social criticism in the Chuck Palahniuk vein with the spineless style of a giallo. It’s the kind of easily dissected, yet obtuse, cinema that’ll get a couple of papers written about it in a film school somewhere, with little use to anyone else. Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality and language.
Playing at Carmike 10 and Carolina Cinemark.