'The Neon Demon' offers harsh look at beauty industry

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
  • Elle Fanning and Jena Malone star in "The Neon Demon"
  • 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

"The Neon Demon," from Nicholas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur behind the Ryan Gosling cult flick "Drive," is a movie primarily about Elle Fanning's face. Specifically, the inimitable, effervescent and, most importantly, youthful beauty of her character, Jesse, a young model making her way into the gaping maw of the modeling industry in Los Angeles. There's a real obsession and focus on her innocent, rounded visage that drives the film.
"Are you food, or are you sex?" older model Gigi (Bella Heathcote) demands of Jesse upon their first meeting at an industry party, while slicking on a lipstick called "Red Rum," the name a glorious double entendre. In this world of LA models, these are the two ways to be consumed, so virginal Jesse has to decide fairly quickly which one she wants to be.
Plot: An orphan, and only 16, Jesse is holed up in a rundown Pasadena motel run by a creep manager (an incredible appearance by Keanu Reeves), while she tries to make it in the big city, trading in on her pretty youth. A makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), offers her friendship, for which the shy and lonely Jesse is grateful. Soon, Jesse's light eclipses those around her, and even she falls under her own spell. Her narcissism, born during an acid trip light show runway sequence, blinds her from the dangers of the older models, Gigi and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who become inflamed with jealous rage.
Cliff Martinez's score twinkles and purrs and lulls, and coupled with the star-is-born-tale, Jesse's vintage-inspired wardrobe, the aggressively colorful visual design, and the dry, wry campiness, "The Neon Demon" feels like a 1970s cult flick, inspired by the female-driven horrors of Dario Argento's "Suspiria," or Roman Polanski's sexual-psychological doozy "Repulsion," starring Catherine Deneuve.
"The Neon Demon" is far less operatic than these films — colder, controlled. But it's just as archly silly, quotable, visually hypnotic and perfectly suited for repeat viewings. On first watch, the film is bizarre, hallucinatory, shockingly gruesome. A second watch unlocks the dumb-clever charms of Refn's script, written with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, with lines like, "plastics is just good grooming," and "beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing." You'll chuckle along, and you're supposed to, though the performers are deadly serious.
Age-old tale: The message of Refn's film — that beauty is the most highly prized currency and the industries built around commoditizing it eat their young — isn't groundbreaking in the least. It's an age-old tale, one that's been told again and again and again. There are moments when you wonder if Refn might actually think he's making a radical statement, but one should give the benefit of the doubt that the filmmaker is too smart for that. If anything, it's a reminder, wrapped in an ostentatious and somewhat ridiculous horror film.
Though oft discussed, "The Neon Demon" is fairly devoid of sexuality (with one very notable, deviant, and obscene exception) of the intimate or sensual variety. The women's bodies are presented more as elements of design than sexual objects. The interactions that Jesse has with lecherous older men in the industry are merely for artistic ends. So if you're not going to be sex, there's only one option. At the end of the day, the choice "The Neon Demon" presents is — are you a predator or are you prey?

3.5 out of 4 stars
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.

Elle Fanning in "The Neon Demon." The movie is playing at R/C Hanover Movies.