The Neon Demon

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* * * 1/2

Cheap thrills dressed up as very high art, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is the year’s most outrageously entertaining movie, a stylish exercise in depravity from which you cannot pull yourself away for a spellbinding two hours. It’s pure cinema about a soiled milieu, the seedy world of Los Angeles models competing to be the thinnest, prettiest and most “naturally” beautiful.  And The Neon Demon knows a thing or two about beauty, and ugly. It’s a movie that goes from high-gloss fashion runways—where looks can literally kill—to sleazy strip motels that serve as refuge for runaway lambs to the slaughter.

In the opening shot, a model lies bleeding to death on a designer sofa before the camera pulls back to reveal her merely the subject of a provocative photo shoot. That model is coltish Elle Fanning, starring as an orphaned, off-the-bus ingénue determined to make it big, a classic babe in the woods primed to be devoured.

“Who wants spoiled milk when you can have fresh meat,” one character assesses, and indeed Jesse (Fanning) is as fresh as they come, a sixteen-year-old, creamy white virgin possessing a beauty coveted by everyone, notably vixenish pros Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), a plastic surgery aficionado, and Sarah (Abby Lee Kershaw), a size zero ice queen whose sullen blue eyes seem to weigh more than her lithe frame but somewhat less than her neuroses.

After a top modeling agent (Christina Hendricks) offers her a contract and sage words of wisdom (“Some people will tell you you’re fat; I won’t”), all systems are go for Jesse’s coronation as America’s next top (Los Angeles) model, raising the ire of near-expired Gigi and Sarah while catching the eye of make-up artist Ruby (a terrific Jena Malone), a too-good-to-be-true new friend.  Nights are spent fending off the sleazy slumlord (Keanu Reeves, still vocally awkward) of her low-rent motel home, whose primary job seems to be deflowering defenseless Lolitas when not fending off lions that turn up in the rooms.

After a nude shoot with a top photog (Desmond Harrington) who slathers her in gold body paint—a masterfully choreographed, shot and performed sequence—Jesse’s star begins to rise, eclipsing her milquetoast, junior lensman boyfriend (Karl Glusman) when a notable fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) makes her the runway centerpiece of his new collection.

For an hour or so, this trenchant movie is teasing fun in its examination of jealousy, competition between women and the dynamics of a competitive industry where fake and natural beauty congeal, pointed out in a cruel scene where Nivola compares Gigi unfavorably to Jesse, who after coming fully into her own beauty may be, as she describes herself, quite “dangerous.”

Unfortunately, the picture’s final third missteps significantly with the introduction of outrageously broad horror elements including left-field necrophilia, cannibalism, mutilation, copious nudity and titillating seductions that abruptly detour into heavy metaphor. Consequently, we don’t know whether to laugh, groan or just merely be heartbroken that Refn fails to sustain his vision and our investment.

Refn leans heavily on David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and heavier on Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria, an explosion of color and sound about a witches’ coven inside an all-girl German dance academy and an equally stylish movie, one evident here even in the director’s choice of garish wallpaper.

But unlike Refn’s celebrated 2011 thriller Drive, The Neon Demon is cool, detached and lacks empathy, which is perhaps the point. Fanning, unlike Ryan Gosling in both Drive and Refn’s most recent effort, 2011’s Thailand drug opus Only God Forgives, is also bit of a cipher. We never truly get close enough to Jesse to care, and her character is underwritten.

The Neon Demon is beautiful, ugly, shamelessly entertaining and features first-class cinematography and art direction, and a throbbing synth score by Refn regular Cliff Martinez. Despite its decidedly thin characters, third act diversions and sometimes unwieldly amalgam of thriller, satire, Grand Guignol, black humor, glamour and gross-outs, it is unlike anything else out there and deserves high marks for originality and vision.

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