“Every frame a painting.” Never have I seen these words resonate more with a film than Nicolas Winding Refn’s take on the L.A. modeling world in The Neon Demon. Offering a darkly satirical look that verges on ridiculous at times, the movie is drop dead gorgeous throughout the entire run time. That doesn’t make up for the fact that the story is extremely vapid; character growth and meaningful dialogue is virtually nonexistent. But it’s a movie full of metaphors and rhetoric, and Refn isn’t known to have too much dialogue in his films. Instead, the movie speaks for itself.
Starring Elle Fanning as 16 year old Jesse, she’s a girl who moved to L.A. to become a model. She soon meets 2 other models, Gigi and Sarah, who are past their prime, and Ruby, a makeup artist for both the living and the dead. As the three girls soon find out, Jesse is a rising star with natural near-perfect beauty. They conspire unbeknownst to Jesse to kill and eat her in order to gain beauty she innately has. And even though all three of them have good looks, it is only through modification and falsities.
It can’t be said enough how beautiful this film is. Nearly every single frame is so visually striking that it could be made into a print and hung up on a wall. Refn handpicked every single color, every single object and every characters position to create such striking images that it becomes hard to believe it’s kept up the whole way through. One scene in particular is the turning point of the film that retells the story of Narcissus, drawing parallels between the ancient mythology and Jesse’s account. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Using only lights and mirrors, it was so perfectly shot, executed and is one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in film; that alone is worth the price of admission. Other stands out scenes are the party, the aftermath of the feast, and the last 15 minutes. Another thing to point out is that after the Narcissus pool scene, the film goes from a “realistic” to an almost dreamlike state. Nothing really seems real, with a radical change in tone and colors. Dialogue becomes scarce and is more grandiose when it appears, giving it the vibe of another movie with the same visual look. For all the praise on the metaphor and sight, this can’t save it from the weak script and characters.
Cheesy and sometimes straight up bad, the film really takes a hit with the writing. There are moments of genius at times, with phrases like “beauty is everything” and the “Are you food or sex?” scene that sums up the movie in the words. But these are few and far in between. Any character besides Jesse also gets little to no time to grow or develop. Even Jesse herself only gets two or three pivotal moments that define her more as a character. Keanu Reeves character is just there to be a dick, and it’s implied he’s a pimp of sorts. That’s about the extent of his character. The famous photographer everyone wants a shoot with is just that and no more. No one really gets much depth to them besides what you see on the surface, and maybe that’s the point. But to purposely leaving things so vague works against it just as much as it does for it.
Can this movie be recommended? The answer is as convoluted as the film itself. It’s a story of how the “Neon Demon” that is Los Angeles and the modeling world draws in people from around the world and swallows them alive, where anyone past the age of 20 is considered ancient and prehistoric. People purposely modify themselves to stay in the scene at the cost of their humanity, sometimes going through dark lengths in pursuit of youth and relevancy. But the biggest problem is also it’s biggest con. The Neon Demon is not a film for everyone. It substitutes plot and reason for metaphor and stylish surrealism. It comes across as extremely awkward and cheesy at times, but if you can get through from beginning to end and let it sit in your head for a while, you might just end up glad you saw it.
3.5 out of 5 Zombie Heads