‘The Neon Demon’: Ingénue the very model of an innocent who’s thrown to lions of L.A.
Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn tosses “All About Eve” into the blender with alluring moodiness and bloody malice in this rapturous, sometimes ingeniously inane, tale of superficial nihilism and the obsessive pursuit of perfection. To be sure, we’re not talking about brainiacs or even anyone all that likable; at the heart of “The Neon Demon” lurk tall, comely women trying to make it in L.A.’s uber-competitive modeling scene. Before the camera they’re titillating works of art sculpted by the hand of god (or a plastic surgeon); inwardly they’re loathsome vampires rapaciously seeking virginal blood (or the next nip and tuck) to preserve their fleeting immortal superiority.
Unlike the souls of its subjects, however, “Neon Demon” never registers as a dull loll. Refn, whose prior efforts were the stylish “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” finds another gear here, serving up the pulsating rhythms of the urban nightscape perfectly atop the ominous waves of Cliff Martinez’s techno score. The effect calls to mind the haunting hypnotic cadence of Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void” or Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Without much awareness you’re pulled under and completely immersed.
“Neon Demon” may hit a few logistical WTFs, but they never sap its ability to beguile. The opener – a slow draw-back framing a statuesque beauty on a velvet settee, her face painted in glitter and her neck seemingly slashed as shutter flashes abound from across the room, is an entrancing provocation. Is she a victim of the titular being? Are we looking at a police crime scene? Or are we drinking in some kind of strange performance art? To tell would be to dispel the lurid wonderment that is the film’s magnetic draw.
The lady Eve is an ingenue by the name of Jesse (Elle Fanning, who replaced Carey Mulligan) who’s come to L.A. to become its next top model. Blessed with round, luminous blue eyes and a knowing sensual aura under a milky exterior, we learn in a terse interview with a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks) that Jesse, just 16, possesses what every Gisele Bundchen look-alike wants: that je ne sais quoi that lights up a room. Far from her Midwest roots and sans parents (we never really get the full details as to what happened, and when), Jesse is every part the lamb that’s wandered into the lion’s den – and to prove the point, when she comes home one night to her seedy motel, she finds a massive mountain lion trashing her room; but fear not, Keanu Reeves, as the disheveled desk manager and an intrepid cohort handy with a baseball bat, are on hand to take care of things.
Everyone around Jesse seems to harbor a hidden agenda. Even Ruby (Jena Malone), the aspiring makeup artist who more regularly applies her craft at the morgue to beautify corpses for their final journey, appears to want something more than just friendship when she first offers Jesse a paper towel to wipe off a copious slather of makeup. The higher Jesse rises on the runway rung, regularly besting leggy sorts who would give most teenage boys days of frustration, the more frenetic, fraught and hollow the journey becomes. Happiness is not a measure of success. One astute player in the biz remarks, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” and Refn, like Cronenberg, projects man’s folly outward in hideous horror show strokes.
By the end, the film lives up to the macabre implications of its title; there’s necrophilia, the consumption of human flesh and worse, and “Neon Demon” is at its most visceral and chilling in a scene overhearing a brutal assault through a thin wall. Fanning, with her wholesome good looks, anchors Refn’s mad world, bridging alien innocence and contrived puppetmastery with fluid, convincing aplomb – but it’s Malone who takes the risks, having to bare her soul and ambition both bloodied and naked. It’s almost as though Refn is playing god with her, trying to push her to see how she’ll react. And L.A., which is reduced to a little shop of horrors, is his purgatory for all the vain to act out their self-interested acts unbridled and repugnant. It’s a lurid spectacle of vapid vanity, underscored by violence and pettiness, a beauty to behold and an ugly pill to digest.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.