Sometimes we want clarity and structure when we go to the movies. Other times we want visual thrills or a story that moves us. But the “What the hell did we just watch?” factor should never be underestimated: It is its own kind of exhilaration.
On that score, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon, a horror thriller set in the slick, empty Los Angeles fashion world, comes through. Elle Fanning plays Jessie, an innocent underage teen who has come to Los Angeles to crack the fashion world, and it seems she has a good shot at it: A glassy-eyed modeling agent, played by Christina Hendricks in a violet pantsuit, eyes this slim wraith of a girl approvingly and assures her she’s going to be a star. Jessie has checked herself into a cheap hotel room run by a sleazy Keanu Reeves, who accuses her of committing destructive acts she’d never dream of doing. She meets Jena Malone’s Ruby, a predatory makeup artist (to both models and cadavers—she moonlights in a mortuary) who invites her to a party. Meanwhile, two very skinny, very catty, highly artificial-looking models, Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote), slink around seductively.
Those are the basic elements of The Neon Demon, and none of it adds up to much of anything in terms of plot. The movie’s highly stylized dream-logic aura is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., and its cool, sinister tone owes something to Irvin Kershner’s superb 1978 fashion-world thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars. And it’s a welcome leap from the territory of Refn’s 2013 Only God Forgives: That picture was murky and darkly brutal, in an art-house way, though it did offer its share of cheap, brazen thrills, including incest, eyeball-gouging and crazily beautiful flocked wallpaper.
But The Neon Demon is its own sleek, bikini-waxed, glitter-eyeshadow-dusted creature. This is purely an exercise in style, and what style! Refn loves coo-coo interiors, and Jessie’s deliciously dismal hotel room—a mingling of faded bird-of-paradise curtains, cheap hibiscus-printed bed coverings, and wallpaper printed with stylized, Scandinavian-influenced ferns—does not disappoint. Outside of that room, the world looks brighter and much, much slicker. Refn’s color palette could have been inspired by a junior high school girl’s lipgloss collection: Everything—including the blood that inevitably flows—is supershiny and candy-toned bright.
The action here might best be described as inaction: This is a decisively static picture, more a series of Helmut Newton-style tableaus tacked together. Technically, it may barely even qualify as a movie, though that’s part of its allure. Fanning stands, blinking innocently, at the center of it all. At one point, stripped down to her blush-colored undies, she auditions for a fashion show, competing among a bevy of bland, leggy beauties. The blasé designer in charge (played by an amusingly pretentious Alessandro Nivola) sees her and falls under her spell instantly. And how could he not? Tall and fair and semi-naked, Jessie looks like an art nouveau Easter lily, all pinkish white and disarmingly vulnerable. The Neon Demon isn’t much of movie, if you’re looking for an actual story. Nor is it a moralistic fable about the emptiness of Hollywood—if anything, it’s a winking mockery of that sort of thing. But whatever the heck it is, it throws off a chilly, pleasurable sheen. This is visual hard candy.