‘The Neon Demon’ Review

We love beauty and hate that we can’t have it. Or something

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon—and you’ll surely know that this is Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie, as Nicolas Winding Refn’s name is prominent in the credits and Nicolas Winding Refn’s monogram appears on the title card—feels less like a narrative feature than an almost-two-hour-long music video.

I mean this in the nicest way possible. I think. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon sometimes feels like a synthesis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, in that it has the relatively simple narrative of the former and the mind-altering imagery of the latter. And, like both films, it features a fantastic score from expert soundscape manufacturer Cliff Martinez.

Martinez’s stark, synth-heavy soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to Nicolas Winding Refn’s strobe-lit, striking imagery. It creates an otherworldly mood that fits the alien arena of high fashion modeling just right.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a fresh-faced model new to Los Angeles. On her first photo shoot she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who is entranced by Jesse’s perfect skin and youthful features. She introduces Jesse to Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), veterans of the modeling scene.

One of the cruelties of the modeling industry is that by the time you’ve racked up enough credits to get regular work you’re already well on your way to aging out of the business. Sarah and Gigi look at Jesse with a mixture of lust and revulsion, with a desire to capture her essence and crush her soul all at the same time. Agents and designers alike view Jesse as something akin to perfect, a harsh pill to swallow for Gigi (who practically brags about all the work she’s had done to have half the glow of Jesse) and Sarah (whose angular, icy features simply cannot hold up to Jesse’s softer visage).

As Jesse tries to adapt to life on the catwalk, she also tries to make sense of life off of it, living in a sleazy motel in a bad part of town. It doesn’t help that the place is run by Hank (Keanu Reeves), either a run-of-the-mill con man shaking down runaways or a murderer and rapist preying on the girls in his establishment.

Nicolas Winding Refn coaxes fine performances out of his lead quartet of women, eschewing naturalism for a sort of heightened symbolism. Astute viewers will pay special attention to Abbey Lee, a model herself who was most recently seen in last year’s best picture, Mad Max: Fury Road. All arms and legs and angles, Lee’s look, piercing eyes, and despondent demeanor help define her role. She strikes an imposing figure, and one hopes that there’s more work on the horizon for her.

"True beauty is the highest currency we have," a fashion designer says in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. And, like any currency, it inspires jealousy of those who have it in the have-nots. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a movie about how we all yearn for beauty and then seek to destroy it because it makes us hate ourselves. I don’t know how true this message is, but it’s one that feels more compelling—and a little bit frightening—when it is paired with Nicolas Winding Refn’s imagery and set to a scintillating synth-stuffed score.