Published Jun 23, 2016At the time, Nicolas Winding Refn's much-maligned Only God Forgives sort of made sense. Following the career-topping success of his prior film Drive, it seemed like the director was reacting to fame with an angry, violent and occasionally non-sensical art film. Looking back now, however, one is compelled to be less charitable. The Neon Demon suggests he's lost the plot.
The film's premise is all too familiar. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sheepish young girl who moves to L.A. with dreams of making it big as a model. Her underage innocence lends her a hypnotic power in the glamorous world, and she easily enamours everyone she meets. With her rising star status comes a great deal of jealousy from other, more established models, and Jesse quickly becomes corrupted by the glitz and glamour of her new life.
Fanning does an excellent job of balancing the naiveté and arrogance that comes with her new life, and she's joined by a solidly subtle cast that includes Jena Malone as her new friend Ruby and Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as jealous models Gigi and Sarah. There are also passable (if unimpressive) cameos from Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks.
The Neon Demon looks fantastic, pairing vivid colours with pristine Los Angeles backdrops. It's a marvel to look at, even when the plot feels a little slow. Once you settle into the glacial pace, however, the film jarringly switches its tone from a brooding thinkpiece to a B-movie horror flick with Rob Zombie gore. There's necrophilia, there's cannibalism and, both onscreen and in the audience, there's a whole lot of eye-rolling.
When it (almost) works, The Neon Demon finds Nicolas Winding Refn doing a serviceable impression of his earlier, better work. At its worst, however, it's a hokey and ultimately frustrating film that feels insulting by the end.