“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” That’s the motto of Alessandro Nivola’s hunky fashion designer Robert Sarno, who casually takes down Karl Glusman’s baby-faced photographer, Dean. The two are lounging in a swanky Los Angeles hideout, flanked by models, namely Bella Heathcote’s “fine” Gigi and Elle Fanning’s “diamond in a sea of glass” Jesse. Before Dean can argue for the dusty adage that beauty comes from the inside, Sarno strips him down and asks if he’d be with Jesse if she wasn’t so outrageously gorgeous. Dean doesn’t have an answer, or at least not a compelling one, fueling Sarno’s charge that “beauty is the highest currency we have.”
Such is the cold moral fiber of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stunning new thriller, The Neon Demon. Set around the sprawling, dreamy metropolis of Los Angeles, whose skyline always appears beyond our reach, the story follows Fanning’s aspiring 16-year-old model as she quickly works her way through the searing and treacherous world of modeling. When we first meet the girl, she’s developing her portfolio with Glusman’s Dean and living at a dingy Pasadena motel, where she stores her cans of soda, her boxes of cereal, and her thrifty collection of hand-me-down outfits. She doesn’t have a family, she doesn’t have friends, and she has zero experience in the industry.
Even so, Jesse makes great strides with ease. She signs with an impressive modeling agency, books an exclusive photo shoot with a veteran photographer, and lands a coveted spot at an exclusive fashion show. This doesn’t sit too well with her competition, who watch Jesse like rabid jackals ready to pounce at any second. Eventually they do, but they’re not the only ones she must evade, and that’s the cynical majesty of Refn’s dark, twisted fantasy. As our young protagonist comes to learn, the world wants to eat her alive, whether it’s the models, Jena Malone’s would-be mentor Ruby, Keanu Reeves’ sleazy motel owner, or Glusman’s clueless Dean.
The Neon Demon is a fairly literal experience. Refn’s meticulous, candy-glazed portraits — lensed with Kubrickian precision by cinematographer Natasha Braier — may suggest deeper metaphorical interpretations, but the film’s not all that complicated. Much of this has to do with its screenplay, which Refn co-wrote alongside Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. More often than not, the dialogue shouts its themes and motives, but this surprisingly winds up embellishing the film’s surreal overtones. In fact, there’s something vaguely Shakespearean how the characters interact, and Refn shapes that melodrama with his long, drawn out gazes, all swallowed by Cliff Martinez’s lush, extraterrestrial score.
This isn’t exactly unknown territory for the Danish filmmaker. If you recall, Ryan Gosling was a human mannequin throughout most of 2011’s Drive, and he actually became one in 2013’s savagely ignored Only God Forgives. The problem with the latter is that he was surrounded by like-minded window dressing that stared and stared and stared with neither Albert Brooks or Bryan Cranston to shake up the proceedings. That’s not the case with The Neon Demon. This is a film predicated on voyeurism, and while it’s arguably another big ol’ starefest from Refn, the viewer’s patience is earned with unquestionable tension made all the more palpable by its troubled protagonist.
And Fanning is downright stunning here, delivering a mature and nuanced performance as disturbing as it is thrilling. Considering the young actress only turned 18 this past April, it’s also one hell of a coming-of-age role, teeming with abandon, sexuality, and fractured innocence. Yet what makes Jesse such an intriguing character is how she’s both curiously bold and tragically naïve. She knows her strengths, but at the same time, her developing narcissism masks the dangers around her. Fanning captures that disparity with striking poise, essentially holding up a big sign that reads: “Hey Hollywood, get ready for five more decades with me.”
Once again, Refn has constructed another enviable supporting cast to chew up the delicate scenery. Nivola continues his marathon run of superb bit parts, following stellar turns in American Hustle, A Most Violent Year, and Selma. Mad Max: Fury Road star Abbey Lee subtly steals every scene she has as the villainous Sarah, lingering around like Randall Flagg in Gucci, while her co-star Heathcoate has the most fun with the script’s venom. And although Malone sizzles in this environment, her character struggles by being both over- and underwritten, a distracting force suffering from questionable mystery. As for Reeves … well, three words: “Real Lolita shit.”
Real Lolita shit.
Right after Sarno embarrasses Dean, the hapless photographer confronts Jesse outside her motel room, confused why she’d ever want to be like anyone in that soulless entourage. Her response to him is scathing, if not slightly sobering: “I don’t want to be them. They want to be me.” It’s a statement drenched in ego that none of us would ever say aloud, but something we’ve likely thought about at least once in our lives. That’s because it’s a rational thought born out of an irrational world, one where we try to speak like Dean and end up thinking like Sarno. The Neon Demon is a cruel reminder of these hidden truths, but goddamn if it isn’t absolutely beautiful.