What exactly is the Neon Demon? The glamorously sinful mascot of the LA high life? The malevolent entity that dominates the ironically ugly modeling industry? A dangerously seductive voice pervading the air breathed by those who live for all things beautiful? Your guess is as good as mine, though I must admit that director Nicolas Winding Refn makes questions like these far more intoxicating than any answer you might discover while watching this hypnotic thriller. Refn seems to live in a world where questions have no answers. (If they did, I'm sure they would be harder to find than an honest politician.) For him, such a level of uncertainty paves the way for an incredibly visceral cinematic experience, which is all he really wants us to have. Characterization and storytelling are usually secondary components for Refn, save for his best film, "Drive" (he had no part in writing it after all). As with his previous effort, the gratuitous revenge noir "Only God Forgives," there is a certain lack of believability that will no doubt frustrate those unfamiliar with Refn's oeuvre. Yet for all its intensely lurid subject matter, I can't help but call "The Neon Demon" one of the most singular filmgoing experiences in I've had recent years.
16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved to a crummy motel in Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. Within no time, her youth and natural beauty catch the attention of industry agents, photographers and fashion designers, much to the chagrin of the more experienced girls with years worth of plastic surgery. As Jesse's popularity in the industry rises, so does the hatred of longtime models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who desperately go to some vicious extremes to obtain from her what they do not have.
By now, Refn has carved out his own distinctive style, but his influences remain strong, such as the exhibitionistic violence of the Grand Guignol, the surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch film, and the overt precision of Stanley Kubrick (there's even one direct reference to "Lolita" and one indirect reference to "The Shining"). Never a visually subtle filmmaker, Refn is more than comfortable directing his gorgeous cast in equally gorgeous set-pieces, framing each methodically constructed sequence with shameless fetishism. The film is also just as pleasing to the ear as it is to the eye (if you're not squeamish, that is), as Refn's preferred composer since "Drive," Cliff Martinez, conjures a shimmering synthetic score; something you might hear at a midnight dance club for vampires.
"The Neon Demon" is hardly the first film to turn the modeling world upside down and mix it in with horrific images, so do not expect a lot of originality or insightful commentary here. Beauty is, after all, only skin deep, at least for every character minus Dean (Karl Glusman), Jesse's sort-of boyfriend and the only sympathetic character in the entire film. It's unclear whether or not Refn shares the same opinion, but he seems to have no problem with the shallowness of the overall picture, believing that the lack of development and depth flows in tandem with the characters' inability to see past the surface. In its strange, Refn-esque way, this inexplicably works. A purposefully shallow film? Why? I suppose we'll never really know; Refn doesn't have any answers, remember?
What I do know is that "The Neon Demon" is definitely worth a look, even if you end up walking out confused and frustrated. Those who will enjoy it may be hard-pressed to say exactly why they did. The film is as deliberate as most art-house pictures come, working in the confines of surrealism and the thriller genre, yet it exudes a peculiar sense of euphoria that is almost indescribable. Refn may not dissect the nature of beauty as well as some might expect, but he is certainly an expert at cutting deep into his audience.