Neon-Demon-Review

Arguing style over substance still requires some substance.

The Neon Demon, the new stylized horror film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn opens in limited release this week. Its profile of beauty in the modern age is incredibly sleek, remarkably stylish and, like those models it portrays, ultimately hollow.

Jessie (Elle Fanning) is a teenage runaway who moves into a fleabag motel in Los Angeles in order to pursue modeling. Despite little experience, she quickly lands a number of sought-after gigs with top photographers and designers. Within a few weeks, she’s become something of “the next big thing” in the modeling world.

Her quick ascendance draws the ire of a pair of veteran models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) and a makeup artist (Jena Malone). They’re put off by both the ease at which Jessie has gotten the careers they’d worked for years and the innocent demeanor she conveys throughout.

Despite Jessie’s innocence, there’s a ruthless nature lurking very near the surface. Jessie is not an ingénue who happens to be lucking into what she’s doing with Midwestern dubiousness. She finds a near-religious fulfillment from being seen as beautiful – something that reveals a depth to her character that Refn never fully explores.

That’s where The Neon Demon ultimately fails. It has a clear point of view on the evils of a society obsessed with beauty and the merciless way in which we value the shallow. The issue is that it has trouble identifying the perfect avenue within its plot to make its point.

Instead, it drifts in a number of ways. There’s Jessie’s dual-nature which would have been the most fascinating – the innocent girl who’s really a killer all along. There’s the clandestine plot against her by her model rivals which would illustrate the cutthroat nature of the industry and beauty in general.

There’s also a third, and much uglier way, that the film explores this and it’s through the punishment Jessie receives at the hands of men. It’s borderline misogynist in the way that the further Jessie becomes comfortable with her beauty and begins to “own it” (to borrow a term of art) the more she becomes punished by the men around her – as though this quality is something that deserves punishment.

With so many conflicting plot points, Refn is never able to focus on a through-line story that will make his point for him. The conflicting vacillation of his focus muddies his message and actually leaves the viewer wondering what the point of everything was.

On a deeper level, The Neon Demon does not do what it wants, but on the surface the film is a marvel. Refn’s incredible patience in his visual and sonic presentation is astonishing. Each shot is composed with such detail and deliberation that it’s impossible not to appreciate the filmic brilliance of the final piece.

In that regard, The Neon Demon achieves a sort of meta goal of being near-perfect on the surface but having nothing much going on anywhere further below. I can’t imagine Refn’s idea was to make a film that looks great and says nothing and in that effect have the piece of art itself make the point where the story can’t, but if it was – this is a triumph.

As it really stands, it’s the prettiest girl at the party with whom you’d never want to have a conversation.