Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 117 minutes
When we throw around the term "popcorn movie," we tend to refer to larger than life spectacle that's harmless and entertaining. Maybe it's a high-level popcorn movie (Captain America 2), or something that borders on guilty pleasure territory (the Fast and Furious franchise). But the term is almost exclusively used to refer to larger than life spectacle. Yet the arthouse/international scene is equally capable of producing these types of movies, though they're often more divisive than what usually passes for popcorn moviemaking. If what you're looking for at the movies is an empty pleasure that eschews blockbuster theatrics (explosions, lasers, superheroes, aliens, etc...), then The Neon Demon is what you've been waiting for, even if you despise it. The latest from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) is the fried chicken of arthouse thrillers. You're left simultaneously satisfied and disgusted, knowing that you've just indulged in a treat that is absolutely horrendous for your health. Touch it, and your fingers become sickeningly shiny. But, as the saying goes...everything in moderation...
Returning to the glistening underbelly of L.A. has paid off for Refn, making a much needed rebound from 2013's insufferable Only God Forgives. That said, if you're expecting another Drive, you might be in for a bit of a shock. That film took a threadbare plot and turned it into a moody, soulful drama punctuated with flashes of exploitation-flick violence. The Neon Demon, rather than flirt with exploitation, fully embraces it with a sloppy tongue kiss. It is the unholy offspring of Suspiria, Eyes Wide Shut, and Black Swan: a delirious, sensory experience that either hooks you from the opening title cards or sends you into a defeated stupor.
The film's opening tableau, featuring aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) bloodied and sprawled out on a fainting couch, captures the whole endeavor perfectly. It's exquisitely stylized, but eventually revealed to be a fake. At one point, Jesse disappears from the couch, not because she's become invisible or ascended, but merely because she's finished with photoshoot and needs to remove her make up. Everything and everyone in The Neon Demon's vision of L.A. is consumed only with youth and beauty. Most of the characters who appear on screen are young, pretty, and white (and the film's oldest actor, 51 year-old Keanu Reeves, hardly looks a day over 40). These people, even the less affluent, live in a bizarre sort of bubble. Despite occupying space in the 2nd largest city in the country, Fanning and co. seem to be living in a virtual wasteland.
Yet these aesthetic choices are hardly indicative of a film that possesses meaningful depth. It's a shallow movie about shallow people, carefully tiptoeing along the line that divides winking satire and indulgence. But that doesn't stop Refn from tipping his hat to areas the film might have explored had wanted to make something with more thematic weight. If The Neon Demon has a point, it's that L.A.'s fashion industry is populated entirely by a hierarchy of predators. These hunters come in different forms, from fellow models (Bella Heathcote and Mad Max: Fury Road's Abbey Lee), to landlords (Keanu Reeves), to photographers (Desmond Harrington). And, just to make sure you don't miss this message, Refn even includes a scene involving a lost mountain lion who breaks into Jesse's hotel room.
Refn's command over the film's look and soundscape is so intoxicating that it comes as a bit of a letdown that the performers tend to lack consistency. Fanning and co. seem to be in on the sick joke of it all in some scenes, and then minutes later become completely wooden. The only exceptions are Christina Hendricks (in a too-short cameo as Jesse's agent) and Jena Malone (as a make-up artist who befriends Jesse early on). Even through the inconsistency, though, there are moments campy magic that pop up, particularly from Fanning and Lee.
But, seeing as this is a film about models, it seems fitting that the actors are largely there to be manipulated. Everyone poses spectacularly, and the whole film looks magnificent thanks to Natasha Braier's neon-drenched photography. Cliff Martinez's pulsating electronic score is equally magnetizing, turning some of the protracted, pretentious sequences into hypnotic stretches of gorgeous nothingness. Knives are drawn, blood is spilled, and there are hints of something supernatural going on. Or maybe it's just a brush with magical realism. But whether or not even a second of The Neon Demon makes sense to the head is completely secondary when compared to whether it makes sense to the eyes and ears.