Overview: A young model’s beauty make her vulnerable to danger in the modeling industry; Amazon Studios/Broad Green Pictures/ Scanbox Entertainment/The Jokers; 2016; 117 Minutes.
The Surface: Neon Demon begins with bursts of light and color and a pounding electronic score. Shards of fractal glass decorate the opening credits sequence. At its core, under slick surface appearances, Neon Demon is a giallo horror movie about a superficial industry and this structure is also its commentary. The artifice of the model industry is replicated in the film’s heavily-lit aesthetic and extremely theatrical performances. Beauty is a deception that leads to an all-consuming and blinding obsession.
The film opens on Jesse (Elle Fanning) sprawled across a couch covered in blood, camera bulbs flashing like emergency lights at a crime scene. She’s just arrived in LA, and has arranged a headshot appointment with amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman, fresh off of last year’s Love). She is soon after introduced to make-up artist Ruby (an exceptional turn from Jena Malone) and to models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who simultaneously condescend to and envy her. Jesse adapts quickly but stays a vulnerable stranger in this new territory.
In his observation of Jesse’s assimilation, Director Nicolas Winding Refn presents a fascinating world, one in which experience is without value while youth and gullibility are primary selling points. Neon Demon is perhaps his most indulgent work yet, and that isn’t a bad thing. Refn is a director of fresh, boundless creativity and a killer vision, and here, he employs all of that as he unapologetically crafts an alien planet that defies explanation. He finds power in this latest combination of his expected staples: haunting atmospherics, stylish visuals, and an overbearing score from Cliff Martinez. Natasha Braier’s cinematography is mind-bending. Refn’s use of lighting and mirrors is masterful and his cool night sequences create an arresting contrast from the stark heat and clear daytime scenes. What is most memorable though is the structure, susceptible to assault from random scenes that tattoo unforgettable impressions upon the mind of the viewer– a frenetic night club sequence, a haunting nightmare.
Beneath: Refn explores the social currency of surface beauty with seething, scathing commentary on the absurdity of it all. In one scene, Dean is ridiculed after a cheesy but convincing comment in which he lets out that he values Jesse’s character over her looks. When he leaves, Jesse is unfazed and her transformation is complete, all in the matter of weeks. She discards the white sundresses for sleek black nightgowns and more sexualized outfits. The costume design on the whole makes for a keen characterization tool.
Characters become zombie-like in the lifelessness of their seductive camera glances. Long pauses hold unnaturally between lines. The dialogue is at once self-serious and of a slick camp. At times, it borders on pastiche – Christina Hendricks as the head of a modeling agency is fitting but Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel owner is hilariously uncharacteristic.
Overall: Neon Demon is as much a tone poem as it is a movie. Rather than devote itself entirely to telling the story of torrential identity loss to a shallow industry, the film evokes feeling and ephemeral self-reflection.