Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a painfully naive young woman from a small town somewhere in the midwest arrives in Los Angeles with stars in her eyes, only to discover the road to fame and fortune is littered with obstacles that will force her to sacrifice any vestige of her former self, lest she be devoured by the competition.
Such is the premise of The Neon Demon, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest effort, which finds wide-eyed Jesse (Elle Fanning) struggling to find a foothold in the cutthroat Hollywood modeling industry. The Georgia teen’s natural beauty makes her a hit with photographers and fashion designers, but it also turns her into a target for a pair of veteran models. Cosmetic surgery enthusiast Gigi (Bella Heathcote) wields thinly veiled insults like deadly weapons and is rarely seen without her signature smirk, while statuesque Sarah (Abbey Lee) trashes a changing room when she loses a runway job to the fresh-faced newcomer.
Keanu Reeves shines in a handful of scenes as a sleazy motel owner with zero reservations about exploiting his young female clientele, and Jena Malone gives the film’s best performance as a sweet, soft-spoken makeup artist who moonlights as a mortician, and whose interest in Jesse is more than platonic. But while The Neon Demon features a stellar cast and is packed to the gills with the sort of mesmerizing visuals that have become synonymous with Refn’s name, the script is completely devoid of any nuance or subtlety.
Refn clearly believes he has something to say about the casual misogyny of Hollywood – Jesse’s first photoshoot finds her draped sexily over a couch and covered in fake blood – but his “throw everything at the screen” approach isn’t even remotely effective, and what begins as a stylish commentary on the emptiness of fame devolves into an absurd cocktail of murder, necrophilia and cannibalism played out in grotesquely explicit detail. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that started off in such promising fashion derail itself so completely in the final moments.
But hey, at least the synth-infused score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez is pretty solid.