Style shatters substance in ‘The Neon Demon’

Willow Yang/Staff
"The Neon Demon" | Broad Green Pictures
Grade: B-

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“Beauty isn’t everything,” an unnamed fashion designer dramatically declares in “The Neon Demon.” “It’s the only thing.” Indeed, beauty reigns supreme in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest psychological horror film.

The plot is simple: sixteen-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model and industry newcomer. Jesse’s youthful, ethereal features not only land her coveted jobs, but an elite status that other girls only dream of having. Jesse’s immediate success threatens a duo of experienced, artificially beautiful models (Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee) who then take matters into their own, elegant hands.

Sound familiar? “The Neon Demon”’s narrative isn’t really groundbreaking or creative (see: “Black Swan,” every villainess in a Disney movie) and neither are its violent, slasher-happy parts. The story alone could pass off as a campy horror flick. The supermodel drama, however, isn’t the selling point “The Neon Demon” – it’s the visuals.

“The Neon Demon” banks on Refn’s stylistic choices, which recall the surrealist works of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Whether it’s Jesse’s charming pastel motel room or a women’s bathroom bathed in fluorescent sunset hues, Refn smartly restrains the color palette in each scene to go wild with everything else. (In any given moment, there are at most three distinct colors.) The epitome of this approach takes place in Jesse’s decadent and mesmerizing catwalk sequence, in which everything is cloaked in black, save for a glowing neon Triforce-looking symbol.

At certain times, the images are literally stunning. There’s a long club scene where flashing red strobe lights hit your eyes for an uncomfortably long time. In another, the stark, abrupt transition from a dimly lit room to an all-white backdrop of a photo shoot setting is a sensory overload. But whether it was Refn’s intention to burn our pupils, one thing’s clear: The eye candy in “The Neon Demon” is shiny, biting and addictive.

Cliff Martinez’s eerie, hypnotic score is also a treat. Martinez, who has worked with Refn before on “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” builds tension on top of the film’s already uneasy images. The theme of “The Neon Demon,” which features ringing vibraphones, pulsing beats and UFO sound effects, sounds like the dance floor of an impossibly trendy club run by aliens. And it works really well. Martinez’s glimmering, otherworldly arrangements perfectly complement Refn’s vision about the surface-obsessed world of modeling.

Elle Fanning as Jesse, who transforms from a timid, small-town girl to the confident glitter-covered supermodel, is equal parts captivating and scary. But Jena Malone, who plays Ruby, Jesse’s kind yet off-putting makeup artist, stands out among the rest of the cast. There’s a whole lot that Refn throws at her character, but Malone pulls it off exceedingly, almost unsettlingly, well.

Still, neither Martinez nor the cast could help the poor decisions made by Refn in the third act. As the movie spirals into Refn’s own odd, perverted fantasies, the slick suspense Refn carefully manicured in the first half of “The Neon Demon” is compromised.. The male gaze-yness turns into full-blown gawking and revelling. For instance, a gratuitous shower scene feels like an X-rated version of “Carrie.” And let’s just say, the audience might never see female morticians the quite same way again. The ridiculously misogynistic shots aren’t artsy; they’re distracting and have even elicited walk-outs at screenings all over the world, including at Cannes.

Refn has actually addressed his inclusion of such disturbing, excessively sexualized elements before in past interviews. He calls himself a pornographer, explicitly stating that he makes films about his fetishes. Refn also made clear that he’s more concerned with concepts rather than the plot and has deliberately moved away from narrative-driven films in favor of attention-demanding, sensory-pleasing (or unpleasing) postmodern cinema.  And as far as Refn’s concerned, he doesn’t care whether we understand it or not.

So, is style enough to be substance in “The Neon Demon?” Just barely.

And who knows, maybe there is a hunk of flesh underneath the surface of the obvious “beauty is dangerous” metaphor. There were plenty of times where things got considerably offensive, but admittedly, Refn made it hard to look away. Perhaps by presenting his taboo fantasies to the audience, Refn’s indulging us in our own sick nature. If this is true, then “The Neon Demon” is a lot more sinister in its cathartic release than gore-fest horror movies.


Contact Adrienne Lee at [email protected].