‘The Neon Demon’: Stylish horror story lacks much substance

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Elle Fanning in “The Neon Demon.” | Broad Green Pictures

For the second time in two weeks, I’ve seen a movie (the other coming in future weeks) in which a deeply disturbed individual has an intimate encounter with a corpse.

Summer Movie Season, 2016: It’s not all about the sequels and reboots!

“The Neon Demon” is a dark-crimson, waking nightmare of a movie, filled with stunningly beautiful and sickeningly horrifying visuals. It’s trippy and pretentious and off-putting and occasionally funny, though it’s difficult to say for certain whether the humor was intentional.

For a film so aggressively intent on Big Shock Moments (cannibalism and lesbian necrophilia, anyone?), it’s more often stultifying and tedious than provocative.

Elle Fanning is a Lolita-esque 16-year-old named Jesse, fresh off the bus from Georgia and ready to make her mark as a model in Los Angeles.

The first time we see Jesse, she’s sprawled on a sofa, slathered in blood, her face heavily painted, her eyes unblinking.

She’s not dead. She’s modeling.

By the time director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn stops revving the symbolic engine nearly two hours later, we’ve seen so manybeautiful young women painted like exotic hookers, stripped of their dignity and their clothes, assaulted, cut open and otherwise humiliated, degraded, mutilated and in some cases executed that “Neon Demon’s” undeniable artistry is overwhelmed by the stench of brutality for brutality’s sake.

Jesse’s a seemingly innocent waif with a tragic past. She’s a pretty girl and she knows it, and the camera loves her — but in the conceit of “Neon Demon,” Jesse is so spectacular, has so much It Factor emanating from her very being, that jaded casting agents and misogynist photographers are hypnotized by her beauty, and impossibly beautiful and much more sophisticated models are seething with resentment and yet intimidated by the New Girl on the Block.

It’s a stretch, but OK.

“The Neon Demon” isn’t trafficking in anything resembling the seedy underworld of the modeling business, or for that matter the underworld of any part of the world. Nearly every frame in the film is presented like something to be hung on a wall and either admired or loathed or maybe a little bit of both.

As composer Cliff Martinez’s heavy, synthesizer score pulsates and cinematographer Natasha Braier serves up one striking visual after another, Jesse goes deep through the looking glass.

Jena Malone’s Ruby is a vampire-ish makeup artist who takes an immediate and intense liking to Jesse, promising to be there for her any time of day or night. (When Ruby’s not working on fashion shoots, she moonlights at the morgue, painting the faces of the dead. Let’s just say Ruby is really into her night job and leave it at that.)

Bella Heathcoate’s Gigi and Abbey Lee’s Sarah are equally vapid, equally dark-hearted and equally beautiful models who are inseparable and always seemed outfitted for an S&M shoot. They both speak in deadpan tones and often seem to be staring into the abyss — and they’re both capable of performing unspeakable deeds in the name of surviving just a little while longer in the modeling business. They hate Jesse. Oh how they hate Jesse.

Alessandro Nivola sports a porn mustache and a creepy persona as an influential fashion designer who turns Jesse into a budding star. This guy’s a piece of work. He thinks of himself as a great “creator,” and he pounds home a point we hear over and over again in the film: Beauty is everything. There’s nothing more important in the world. If you’re not beautiful, you’re nothing and you might as well die.

Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men” has an effective cameo as a casting agent who signs Jesse on the spot. Keanu Reeves gives one of his best performances in years as the criminally cruel manager of one of the seediest motels in recent motion picture history. I wish we had seen more of both characters.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a unique talent. His noir-thriller “Drive” contains Ryan Gosling’s best performance and topped my list of the best films of 2011. Gosling also starred in Refn’s twisted, Bangkok-set “Only God Forgives” (2013), a polarizing effort loathed by many but admired by a staunch minority, including yours truly.

I love the guy’s style and boldness. I love how he seems to be influenced by everyone from Kubrick to Tarantino to certain television shows about vampires and zombies and the evils of the night, while continuing to develop his own skill set at a very high level.

“Neon Demon” is something to look at. It’s gotta lot of bark and a little bit of a bite.

It just never sinks in.


Broad Green Pictures presents a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language). Running time: 117 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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