Review: Nicolas Winding Refn's 'The Neon Demon' Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, And More

Few directors are as polarizing as Nicolas Winding Refn; basically you either love him or you hate him. Or in some cases he inspires hate and adoration in equal measure within each individual. That's the place where I tend to fall. Refn has cornered the market in art house movies for tough guys, hammering out muscular flicks such as Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and his semi-mainstream curveball Drive, all of which found a decent enough mix between style and depth so as not to be considered too shallow. The same can't be said of his last effort, the nihilistic and boring Only God Forgives which found a way to make Ryan Gosling kicking ass throughout Bangkok snooze-worthy.

The Neon Demon is exactly where Refn needs to be, embracing his gruesome, shallow side with unabashed glee and a gallon of blood. Refn is, in the shallowest of ways, attacking the shallowness of Hollywood and the way it must continually feed on youthful energy to survive. Only, he's not even attempting to be coy about it. His delight in every tawdry frame will only be matched by the guilty joy audiences will have at watching beautiful, porcelain Hollywood princesses devouring one another body and soul.

The story is as old as time, but then nothing is truly common when Refn gets a hold of it. Elle Fanning plays vacuous beauty Jesse, who arrives in the neon demon aka Los Angeles to become part of the fashion scene. Refn's vision of L.A. is instantly sinister, like a neon-lit waking nightmare of terminal narcissism. Jesse's gorgeous and beauty is really the only thing of value in the world she's trying to crack. But it's her innocence that makes her stand out among the crowd of catty, plastic witches who reek of desperation and, let's face it, are in their 20s and getting older.

Everybody Jesse encounters has an ulterior motive, even her friends. Jena Malone is fantastic as Ruby, a make-up artist who takes the newbie starlet under her wing.  “Don’t worry, the deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want.” she tells her. And it's true. Jesse instantly becomes the new hot ticket item, quickly surpassing the nip/tucked phoniness of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). They become old news overnight, and if they were downright bitchy before it's cranked up to the nth degree once Jesse becomes a star. These pouty, dolled-up goddesses are downright mafia-esque in their duplicity. They simultaneously want Jesse's destruction and everything the clueless girl has.

It's all just surface material, though, and Refn likes it that way. He's not saying anything especially new or clever here, and that's part of the fun. Every bit of The Neon Demon is transparently frivolous, offering Refn and cinematographer Natasha Brier the platform to indulge in every feverish, surreal scenario they can think of. Some of it makes sense, most of it doesn't. Random panther in a shady motel room? Check. Nausea-inducing strobe light trapeze acts? Check. Occasional lesbian dalliances with the living and the not-so-living? Check. Refn's odd fascination with triangles continues, as well, almost as if he's trying to initiate the audience into a cult of his own making.

But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg for this gross, deliciously vile spectacle, which moves along at Refn's typically unhurried pace. Don't let that lead you to believe it's boring. There's way too much scathing humor for it to ever be dull. Most of it comes from the catty comments made by the foursome of ladies, but others are simply the GIF-ready facial expressions by the disgusting, pretentious men populating this corner of the Hellmouth. The best of which is Alessandro Nivola as the unbearably conceited fashion designer who makes Jesse his new muse. The look on his face the first time he sees her is priceless. Keanu Reeves plays the creepy owner of the rundown motel Jesse is staying at; a guy who houses underage prostitutes and may even be raping them. He's the scum beneath scum's feet. And there's also Karl Glusman, known for starring in Gaspar Noe's Love, as the empty-headed but loyal guy we know is destined to be treated like dirt at some point. We aren't disappointed. Every character is objectified to the point of near-worship, most of all Fanning who is captivating and yet we're put off by her because of Refn's obvious fascination with her face. The camera never stays away from it for too long, like a leering, dangerous stalker waiting to strike.

Whether it was a conscious decision on Refn's part to attack the "style over substance" critique by making The Neon Demon overtly superficial is unknown, and it doesn't really matter. What he's done is create the ultimate in trash cinema, one that ends in an erotic orgy of blood and death. Does any of it mean a thing? Absolutely not, and that's perfectly okay.

Rating: 4 out of 5