Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn gave audiences a surprise with his 2011 film, Drive. Part of its surprise—its departure from audiences’ expectations—was admittedly was out of his hands, the product of a poor marketing campaign, which promised action whereas Rehn delivered stillness. But among that stillness were jolts of graphic violence, all the more shocking for being unexpected.
Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, is eerie, disturbing, and eventually stomach-turning. The surprise here, however, is that it’s also predictable. From the time 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning, a swan), an aspiring model and new L.A. transplant, meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a seasoned makeup artist, you know that Ruby’s intense interest in the teenager isn’t exactly innocent. Barely after exchanging names, Ruby invites her to a party—“a fun one,” she says, after Jesse asks what kind.
But it doesn’t seem fun at all. Besides the inky venue and blood-red strobes, there are Ruby’s two friends, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Both are models and, along with Ruby, interrogate an awkward Jesse in the bathroom in an attempt to get a feel for her status and whether she’ll soon push them out of their pockets of the industry. Even after this ridiculous exchange—with all of them staring at her, Ruby says, “Isn’t she just perfect?”—Jesse stays at the party, smiling at Ruby about the avant-garde “show” going on.
Jesse’s star rises immediately, with one designer’s mouth dropping as if the guy was looking at the second coming of Bridget Bardot. She stays angelic and nearly apologetic; the other models practically hiss. But danger’s afoot. You can tell because a panther somehow ends up in her motel room, and she dreams of a knife being stuck down her throat. And Jesse’s three new friends seem, oh, a bit too coven-y for comfort.
Refn’s certainly created something stylish, with scenes either quiet or pulsing with EDM- and trance-like touches that recall Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A fashion show that Jesse catwalks for has no audience, just unending blackness and flashes of light, and she hallucinates about seeing herself in a trifold mirror and kissing her reflection. Another set piece pans across a photographer and model who don’t move, though the camera keeps clicking. When a second photographer takes over, he walks onto the white backdrop to position his model; the backdrop grows until it looks like the entire set.
Too soon, Jesse turns Stepford, adopting her competitors’ petty personalities. So was her wide-eyed initiation just an act? Not really, because her naïveté shows up again. Then she proclaims herself a “dangerous girl,” saying her mother used to tell her that. But the coven—I mean, three friends—not only stay disturbing, they ramp it up. Necrophilia is involved, among other vile acts.
The message that Refn, who co-wrote the script with two others, is trying to convey is as in-your-face as, well, neon. Gigi, who’s had multiple cosmetic surgeries, says things such as “Plastics is just good grooming” and “Besides, no one likes the way they look.” A modeling agent informs the willowy Jesse that some people might say she’s fat. There’s talk of deciding against breast augmentation, the better to look like “a hanger.” If you still have no idea what the movie’s trying to say, you’re probably also expecting a happy ending.
A couple of “why?”s include the presence of Keanu Reeves as the furious keeper of Jesse’s motel and a possible murder that seems meant only to contribute to the sense of peril. Though the specifics of the climax count as blindsiding, the end itself will make you yawn (that is, if you’re not laughing). What’s the neon demon? Who knows. The only aspect of the film you can be sure of is its trajectory.