The Neon Demon is a voluptuous provocation, a stylish free-fall down a gonzo rabbit hole that is as entrancing as it is maddening. Here is a rarity in this season of summer movie doldrums: A film that is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions. I counted at least 10 walkouts at a recent preview screening. Those who stayed hooted and chortled, then booed when it was over. Some people applauded. I did both. Give me that sort of response over the numb shrugs and box-office bean counting that greet each week’s new would-be blockbuster.
The plot is simple and familiar: 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles hoping to break into the modeling business. She lives in a ramshackle motel managed by a predatory creep (Keanu Reeves). One night, a cougar sneaks into her room. She meets a talent agent (Christina Hendricks) who regards her with carnivorous eyes and suggests she lie about her age and tell people she’s 19, because 18 is too “on-the-nose.”
Jesse has a sweet, well-meaning boyfriend (Karl Glusman) who is kind to her and hopes to ride her coattails into a career as a photographer. She befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who invites her to come along to a party. “What kind of party?” Jesse asks. “The fun kind,” Ruby replies.
There, Jesse meets two successful models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) who say things such as “Plastic surgery is just good grooming.” and “Is that your real nose?” and “God, I love this color on me.” Sarah and Gigi are cagey toward the new girl. They’re curious but also resentful of her, because she’s a few years younger than they are, which in L.A. might as well be a few decades. Jesse seems so innocent, so vulnerable, you fear she’ll be eaten alive by the industry. But after a session with a famous photographer (Desmond Harrington), her career takes off. Soon, she’s stealing jobs from Sarah and Gigi — and gradually turning into one of them, too.
The Neon Demon is the latest movie from director Nicolas Winding Refn, who once made urgent, scabrous movies (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson) but has entered a phase of dreamier, stranger, more elliptical pictures (Drive, Only God Forgives). Refn co-wrote The Neon Demon with two playwrights, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, which explains why so much of the dialogue sounds so clipped, precise, almost staccato. Visually, though, the film is the opposite of that. The cinematography, by Natasha Braier, is awash in startling colors and tenebrous shadows. The electronic score by Cliff Martinez throbs and pulses like Giorgio Moroder. The film’s title is a metaphor for how show-business glitz curdles and rots the human soul, but Refn gives it an abstract literal form, too. During her first fashion runway show, Jesse sees it — a formation of flickering neon triangles — and is hypnotized by it, transformed, seduced by her own beauty. She becomes a narcissist — one of them.
The Neon Demon isn’t intended to be taken at face value: The movie straddles the line between the camp of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the banality of a red-carpet event (“Beauty isn’t everything,” one character says with a straight face. “It’s the only thing.”) The film is intentionally funny, even though it is not a comedy, and Refn has fun toying with the viewer, imbuing ordinary moments with an aura of menace. Eventually, that darkness takes over the movie.
In its last half-hour, The Neon Demon turns into a full-on horror show, with sequences so outrageously ghastly and offensive even Bret Easton Ellis would blanch. Behind the camera, though, you can imagine Refn smiling. To complain that The Neon Demon lacks substance or that it doesn’t have anything to say about our cultural obsession with beauty is to miss the crazy, cracked pageant unfolding in front of you. Not all movies are intended to be read like books; some are meant to be experienced. The Neon Demon is flat-out bonkers in the best, most glorious way, and it reminds you how safe and stolid mainstream American movies have become, how afraid they are to do anything radically different and how befuddled we react when they dare.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcoate, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Karl Glusman.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenwriters: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham.
A Broad Green Pictures release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic violence, necrophilia, cannibalism. Anything goes, pretty much. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Aventura; in Broward: Sawgrass, Pompano.