Equal parts lurid and ludicrous, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon chased more moviegoers from Monday's screening than any movie I've seen lately.
For some, lesbian necrophilia was too much to handle. For others, the cannibalism and regurgitation took things over the edge. A nonexistent plot and vapid dialogue certainly didn't help viewers remain seated.
Once again, Refn is an overeager provocateur, after 2013's reviled Only God Forgives took all the fun out of Ryan Gosling and Bangkok kink. The Neon Demon returns Refn to Los Angeles where Drive and Gosling made him a filmmaker to watch. Nobody guessed it would be through your fingers, in disgust.
The Neon Demon is set amid the decadence of L.A. fashion scene, where 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) is fresh off what we imagine is a bus from what might be heartland America. Refn explains nothing. Everyone is immediately smitten with, or intimidated by her look, which isn't that special to untrained eyes. Even a gay designer (Alessandro Nivola) later anointing Jesse as runway royalty appears to climax at the sight of her. Hopefully, Refn is going for derisive laughs because that's what he gets, and it isn't the first or last time.
Jesse is signed by a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks), immediately causing friction with two other clients, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). A makeup artist (Jena Malone) takes Jesse under her wing, obviously with sapphic motivation that turns atrocious when her advances are denied. If there is a theme to The Neon Demon it's an unhealthy one, of women figuratively and literally ripping each other to shreds, jealous of beauty and frightened of it fading.
We've seen this catfight dynamic played out less hysterically before, in films like Black Swan and Death Becomes Her. Refn's delivery is the former's equal in lurid artfulness, drenched in glowing blood reds and bruise blues. In too-fleeting moments, The Neon Demon nails the absurd narcissism of the latter movie. But there's a meanness throughout The Neon Demon, bordering on misogyny.
It's there from the opening shots of Jesse posed for a fashion shoot, lovely except for the crimson drip from a faux razor slice in her throat, all the way to a reportedly improvised howler of a finale. Any intersection of sex and violence is provocative but isn't enough for Refn. He has other abominations in mind, each presented with erotic intent.
Women in The Neon Demon are continually at the mercy of men. A fleabag motel clerk (Keanu Reeves) leers at underage Jesse and does worse off-screen to an even younger girl. A photographer (Desmond Harrington) orders Jesse to strip naked, slathering gold paint on her body, part of her diva conversion. I'm guessing the mountain lion that ransacks Jesse's motel room probably is male. None of these men get what's coming to them; they get what they want.
What truly makes The Neon Demon frustrating is Refn's undeniable talent for arresting images. His color schemes and framing make each second fascinating to observe, even when the dialogue is stultifying. Jesse's conversion to full-blown narcissist is portrayed as a triangulated seduction of herself, kissing reflections while Cliff Martinez's electronica music throbs. All steaming piles of self-indulgent claptrap should look this good.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.