Over the past decade, Nicolas Winding Refn has gradually turned into quite the polarizing director. His biggest critical and commercial success, Drive, garnered its fair share of disapproval for its pacing and characterization, while Only God Forgives drew ire for its seemingly hollow violence and self-gratifying style. Some find his filmmaking to be lyrical and symbolic; others find it to be pretentious and lacking substance. There's one commonality among his films, though: few dispute the beauty of his craftsmanship, which boasts strong contrast and vivid colors that transport his films to a unique time and place, a cross of '80s vivacity and contemporary aesthetics. His latest, The Neon Demon, guides the audience back to that hypnotizing place as he turns a critical eye to fashion modeling, becoming a takedown of the artifice of the importance placed on physical attractiveness. It's a unique topic considering Refn's fondness for using the purity of visuals to convey deeper musings, though his approach to such superficial subject matter has foreseeable one-dimensional pitfalls.
The Neon Demon weaves together the story of an underage aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who's just arrived in Los Angeles. Living in a cheap, utterly shady motel lorded over by an equally shady manager (Keanu Reeves), she's on the outside of fashion modeling while taking attractive but amateurish snapshots with a local photographer, hoping they'll pave the way for her ascension in the industry. Jesse's the kind of naive and sheepish girl you'd expect from a natural model who's left a small town, but that starts to change once she's eventually picked up and whisked away by the business. As she undergoes the test shoots, the runway tryouts, and the catty attitudes from other models -- befriended by few others outside of Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist -- Jesse experiences the jealousy unleashed upon her for being such a natural beauty with nothing but years of success ahead of her. Her beauty is something the people either want to have, want to enjoy, or want to get rid of for their own personal gain: nothing more than a commodity.
The staging and cosmetics of fashion modeling effortlessly fall into Nicholas Winding Refn's arty wheelhouse, giving him free reign to amplify his high-contrast aesthetics with vibrant lights and ostentatious makeup work. Jeweled studs, corn-syrup blood, and a Wonder Woman-esque golden crown frame the innocent features of Elle Fanning's youthful face throughout The Neon Demon, ever offering the audience something striking to behold amid Jesse's meteoric rise. Coupled with Cliff Martinez' brilliantly pulsating, ornate score, Refn's stylistic flair relishes a similar kind of opulence to that of Italian Giallo horror, elevating the suspense amid some seemingly normal fish-outta-water circumstances for the young model, from meeting her envious competition to her first professional test shoot with a gaunt, slightly menacing Desmond Harrington as her photographer. The director has crafted an unnerving world here, one that's designed to consume girls like Jesse and spit them out in a state that's nothing like the way they went in.
With doe-eyed, curly-haired innocence, The Neon Demon woks hard to convince the audience of an unshakable fact that transcends the concept of a "beholder": that the draw and power of Jesse's beauty is something to marvel and obsess over, creating an unavoidable gravitational pull toward her. The narrative about her virginity, quickness of growing up and adapting to the cutthroat industry are often too on-the-nose to be taken seriously, overly mimicking the kind of surreal dramatics found in director Refn's influences: a pinch of David Lynch here, a dash of Dario Argento there, and so on. Yet, the persuasiveness of his stylized, operatic craftsmanship sells the illusion, framing Jesse's naive one-liners with gob-smacked melodramatic reactions to her presence that gradually work their magic, both upon the audience and upon Jesse herself. The Neon Demon transforms into a glimpse into the mind of a girl whose outward appearance is both her invaluable and sole commodity, illustrating how she surrenders to confidence and egotism with each rung she climbs. Like her career, the change in Fanning's facial expressions are almost immediate, punctuated by trippy abstract visuals that make her transition into something physical that the audience can observe.
The Neon Demon never shies away from its wicked takedowns of the artifice of professional modeling, but in order to do so, a lot of superficiality has to surround Jesse to get the point across. That guides the technicolor musings of Refn's latest film into complicated territory, since there's little depth to be found in critiquing something that's so reliant on flashyy outward appearances, resulting in a general lack of intrinsic value to the characters driving the events forward. Unlike, say, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and its ruminations on the training and competition of an artistic medium like ballet, this film's dramatic tension hinges on unearned physical gifts, enhanced by wardrobe and makeup artists -- such as Ruby, played with kinky quirks and a smirk by Jena Malone -- that makes the industry's starlets into largely passive participants. In relishing this lack of depth, the cutthroat scheming and ravenous jealousy sparked by Jesse's exquisiteness seem nastier and pettier, which both works within the sardonic atmosphere but also lacks the kind of characters with underlying qualities that'd earn one's intellectual investment.
It's also difficult to peg down a genre for The Neon Demon. The tone of the film buzzes with an eerie glow from start to finish, though there isn't anything physical lurking around that's ready to kill models in the vein of Blood and Black Lace, nor is there a significant psychological component involving Jesse's adjustment to the industry. Instead, Refn's colorfully ominous trappings feed into deliberate pacing and slow-tracking photography not unlike Robert Altman's 3 Women, generating a sort of enigmatic trepidation without an actual antagonistic force in sight ... that is, except for the euphemistic, somewhat philosophical concept of the "neon demon". This isn't a visionary horror movie, but a genre-bleeding tiptoeing along the edge of drama and suspense that holds debatable amounts of interpretive value, whose mild terror comes and goes with the spite and desire created by Jesse's presence itself. There's a mesmerizing quality to how director Refn builds expectation of what's to come, uncertain of which direction the narcissistic pendulum will swing next.
That's not to say that there aren't horrific elements in The Neon Demon, either, especially once the film reaches its macabre finale, an unnerving yet reasonable extension of the elevated-reality lyricism that came before it. Director Refn turns overused metaphors about the essence of beauty and the transience of the fashion industry into literal representations after all's said and done, hallmarked by the kind of disquieting mansion, large kitchen knives, and shadowy lighting one might've been anticipating out of this kind of genre film. Much like its representation of Jesse's innocence, and despite the raw morbidity involved with the climax, this becomes too precise and overblown for the good of its desired messages. Once again, there's no disputing the splendor of what Refn's staged in The Neon Demon, but he's also, once again, crafted something that's bound to be divisive due to overconfidence in the staying power of the symbolism present underneath the glitz and glamour.