Stylistically speaking, “The Neon Demon” can be compared to Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” which was beautiful to look at, but was as superficial and as one-dimensional as its lead character. Nicholas Winding Refn is a strong visual director, but long and lingering shots, no matter how beautiful to behold, are not enough.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just arrived in Los Angeles. Having no family and just having turned sixteen, Jesse can’t “sing, or dance or write,” so her goal is to become a model because if there’s one thing she knows she is is pretty and “pretty makes money.” With the help of her new and only friend and photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), she signs with a talent agency and begins booking jobs without really trying very hard because there’s just something about her.
At one of the photo shoots, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who seems nice and genuine enough on the surface. Knowing nobody and staying at a shady motel, run by a pervert played by Keanu Reeves, Jesse attends a party with Ruby who, in turn, introduces her to two model friends (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). Soon enough, however, Jesse begins booking jobs and stealing the models’ thunder and limelight. Jesse is younger and naturally beautiful, while the other two are older and have had a lot of work done in order to fit the mold and stay relevant in their respective careers. Ego, vanity, and an exaggerated sense of self importance lead Jesse down a path she may have never seen coming.
Visually stunning and appealing, Refn’s film is a feast for the eyes. The pace, however, is abysmally slow and the scenes are drawn out to the point that it’s obvious that every decision and every shot is deliberate. Some may argue that to not like or appreciate the film means that there’s no understanding of it, but it’s fairly clear to understand the symbolism and themes because they’re sitting there in plain sight. If anything, the film is too self-indulgent and is as superficial and exaggerated as its characters. Refn is the kind of director whose style you have to get used to. Either you like it or you don’t. The movie is almost two hours long and this is apparent because it seemingly drags on forever. The film reaches a bitter climax, but where it should have ended, it continues on, changing focus.
Driven by Elle Fanning’s performance, the entire cast does a tremendous job of selling their characters, even when there’s really not much to sell. It’s obvious that the practically one-dimensional aspects of the characters are meant to parallel their lifestyle and the themes of beauty that play out in the film, but it’s disappointing that there isn’t much else going on. That the film turns gruesome and strangely bloody, coupled with its immensely slow pacing, doesn’t lift it to anything past what it aims to be, and what it aims to be is full of intense and on-the-nose symbolism that doesn’t strike a real chord. If there’s one upside, it’s that “The Neon Demon” is highly more watchable than Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” And that’s something, at least.
Though stylistically and visually beautiful, "The Neon Demon" is immensely slow paced and is full of intense and on-the-nose symbolism that doesn't strike a real chord.