Five years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive, one of my absolute favorite pictures in years. The ultra stylish and occasionally extremely violent action thriller was light on plot, but heavy on atmosphere. I found it hypnotic. I was less enamored with Only God Forgives, the filmmaker’s follow-up two years later. Violent and fascinating to look at? Indeed it was and it had some good stuff in it. Yet I wrote at the time that it lacked soul and that’s something Drive had with the relationship between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.
Now we arrive at The Neon Demon and that whole soulless thing pervades this experience even more so. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, fresh out of some small town and in Los Angeles to become a model. She’s sixteen, but tells everyone she’s 19. Jesse is stunningly beautiful and knows it. So does everyone around her and it infects them with feelings of jealousy and lust. This includes two other models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) and a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who befriends our wide eyed beauty for a while. Then there’s the photographer (Karl Glusman) who has the hots for her and the manager of the fleabag motel (Keanu Reeves) she’s staying at that might, too.
The central concept of The Neon Demon is that being gorgeous can get you somewhere in life, but it can be dangerous as well due to how it affects others. We pretty much get that within the first 15 minutes and then Demon just keeps going. And going. Anyone familiar with the director knows he favors style over substance and there are some technically pleasing shots to behold. Drive had an interesting enough story to go with the tone and visuals. Forgives did some of the time. This mostly doesn’t. It’s an ugly film about beautiful people.
I found myself simply not caring where the plot went and atmospherics weren’t enough to hold my attention. Nor were the performances. None are bad, but none really rise above the material. The final act gives us a tone shift that may you have you either rolling your eyes or trying to keep your lunch down. We’ve come a long way from the thrill I felt awaiting Refn’s next picture after Drive. With Demon, he seems stuck in reverse.
*1/2 (out of four)