Dressed to Kill: “Neon Demon” defiantly strange, beautiful, virtuoso cinema

The Neon Demon (2016)
117 min., rated R.

Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film, 2013’s esoteric, atmosphere-drenched revenge art film “Only God Forgives,” made 2011’s electrifying “Drive” look like a straightforward popcorn picture by comparison. With “The Neon Demon,” a glittery, deeply strange nightmare full of the filmmaker’s avant-garde sensibilities, it is even less of a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Those not willing to bask in Refn’s unapologetic, art-minded bravado might want to take their business elsewhere. It’s his most divisive, least palatable and most unclassifiable that it’s really not for everyone, but for those who speak Refn’s filmic language and are open to a startlingly unrivaled vision, this is a defiant, seductively crafted piece of outré cinema dripping with menacing allure and mouth-watering beauty.

"I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write...no real talent. But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty." Pure, fresh-faced 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes to the City of Angels to make it as a model without any family or any experience in the industry. Aside from amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), she is on her own, staying at a fleabag Pasadena motel. When she kills it at a Grand Guignol-style photo shoot, Jesse is quickly befriended by friendly make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Soon, she learns how treacherous modeling will be when she meets two cruelly beautiful models, plastic surgery addict Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who size her up but do not yet see her as a threat. Once she’s successfully signed up with a model agency, the youthful and beautiful Jesse is on the fast track of being desired as fresh meat by all the photographers and designers. By selling her soul, she is past the point of no return and unaware that her wicked competition is circling.

In a case of splashy style prevailing over substance but the style actually being the substance, “The Neon Demon” is a viciously bleak, thematically loaded metaphor and cautionary tale of the cutthroat, vanity-obsessed modeling biz and the loss of innocence in the form of a phantasmagoric horror film. La La Land is said to change people, and boy howdy does it, but it's also quick to chew one up and spit them out. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” spoken in blunt honesty by a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola), becomes the thematic throughline and ultimate goal for its characters in this cosmetically familiar new-girl-comes-to-town-with-big-dreams story that never takes the safe, expected route. It gets even kinkier and more lurid than “Showgirls.” As the film enters its third act and meshes the carnal with the macabre, the horror of this once-figurative soul-eating modeling world comes out in full swing with an insane hoot of a final blow. While director Nicolas Winding Refn is in full command of the visual medium and proves to push his actors to fearless and interesting levels, his screenplay, co-written with Mary Laws & Polly Stenham, isn’t always as adept. A stray wildcat and a neon triangle might exist merely as symbols, or perhaps one just shouldn’t overthink what amounts to a surreal fever dream.

Having just turned 18 a couple months ago, the expressive Elle Fanning is the embodiment of a naturally pretty ingenue. As Jesse makes the transformation from a modest up-and-comer to a corrupted, narcissistic mannequin whom everyone wants to be, Fanning approaches that dichotomy with captivating poise. The one thing that doesn’t change is her naïveté, blinding her to the dangers around her. Even when Jesse's intentions may be kept mysterious, as she eventually states, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” Jesse still needs to watch her back. Equally venomous as self-obsessed models Gigi and Sarah, Bella Heathcote (2016’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) and real-life model-turned-actress Abbey Lee (2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) sink their sharp teeth into their parts with intentional humor and looks that could kill, their jealousy and envy begetting violence. Smiling sweetly but holding a freaky-deaky edge close to her vest, Jena Malone never fails to spark as the enigmatic Ruby and dares to go to some dark, sick places. Nothing can really prepare even the most adventurous viewer for her perverse, disturbing scene that prompted theater walk-outs, but Malone brings a creepy desire in Ruby to said scene that makes it seem to exist for a reason rather than just shock-for-shock’s-sake. Other bit parts that make up this world are well filled, including Alessandro Nivola, effortlessly funny as a slick fashion designer who praises his new muse for being “a diamond in a sea of glass"; Christina Hendricks, who's dropped too quickly but nails her one scene that shows how merciless her modeling agency is run as the no-bullshit Roberta; and Keanu Reeves, snagging a few laughs out of the sleaziness he oozes as scummy motel owner Hank but serving no real purpose beyond a sinister, cringe-inducing dream sequence.

Lynchian and Kubrickian in feel with some Dario Argento, “The Neon Demon” nevertheless bears the hypnotic, vibrantly specific imprint of Nicolas Winding Refn with long takes and extra beats of silence. Adding to his limit-pushing, take-me-or-leave-me form, he bravely stages a longer-than-expected performance-art sequence with a strobe light that could be found in 2010’s Gaspar Noé-directed mold-breaker “Enter the Void.” Whether or not Refn is showing off, it’s such a thrill to watch him at work that there’s no denying his entrancingly deliberate precision in his tone and pacing and his striking aesthetic in every pristine frame. A model itself in visual and aural perfection, the film has been lushly shot as a kaleidoscopic nightmarescape by Natasha Braeir and composed by Cliff Martinez, befitting the eerie, coolly alien vibe with another propulsive, synth-heavy score. Lest one forget who directed the film, Refn’s initials (“NWR”) being planted on the screen during the opening credits rides a fine line between smugness and brilliance. With that said, it’s hard not to relish the fact that Refn would probably cackle in the faces of audiences who bemoan his arresting efforts for being too ambiguous and far-out. A lot of movies play out in front of us and then we just go back to our everyday lives. Other films are anything but ephemeral and leave a lingering, hard-to-process effect. Love it or hate it, “The Neon Demon” is still a haunting, ethereal, ultimately singular experience that will not fade from memory anytime soon. It will confound, it will polarize and, yes, it will disgust, but rest assured, it truly is unlike anything you are likely to see in 2016 or any other year.

Grade: A -