I finally watched Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) and can’t quite shake its gorgeous aesthetic and haunting mood. Seeing as it’s set in the high-stakes Los Angeles fashion world, it comes as no surprise that nearly every single character is a vapid, raging, sociopathic narcissist. Elle Fanning plays the supernaturally beautiful teenage model Jesse, who is either blissfully naive or dangerously calculating. Either way, her quick ascension to star model makes her the target of the movie’s other, inferior and jealous models. The film takes some truly bizarre twists and turns that I will not reveal here. Suffice it to say, things eventually go off the rails so spectacularly that I was left with my jaw on the floor a couple times.
Something isn’t quite right with Jess. She floats through the film with an eerie, blank expression (to be fair, nearly every model or fashion industry person in this film shares the same eerie, blank expression). Strange, unexplainable things happen to her, but in many cases they simply serve to propel her career forward at a meteoric rate. Late in the film she ominously reveals that her mother always knew she was “dangerous.” Fanning is quite good, underplaying when needed and certainly capturing the emptiness that seems to reside behind Jess’s beauty.
It might be like plucking low-hanging fruit for Refn to portray the fashion world in such nasty light—I mean, we don’t need to be told that industry is fucked up—but he does it in such a engaging way that it’s hard to ignore. Take all of the starkly beautiful cinematography, excellent use of primary color lighting—reminiscent of Dario Argento works like Suspiria (1977) or Inferno (1980)—a cast full of beautiful-if-drugged-out-looking models, plus Keanu Reeves in a small but memorable role as a truly disgusting motel manager, among other things, and you’ve got a film that’ll stick in your craw for a while.
Good or bad, that’s what I want out of a movie. The Neon Demon will definitely be haunting me for some time to come.