Few directors are more stylish and subversive that Nicolas Winding Refn, and he goes all out by re-imagining the horror genre in “The Neon Demon.”
If you’re not a fan of auteurs who push the envelope, then this movie is not for you. It features necrophilia and graphic nudity — and it’s about supermodel cannibals. Fans of Austin’s Fantastic Fest will probably eat it up. Others, not so much.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a young girl from Georgia who moves to L.A. to pursue her dreams. She’s immediately snapped up by a modeling agency headed by Roberta (Christina Hendricks), who sees her youth and beauty as the ticket to stardom.
Indeed, Jesse rises through the modeling ranks quickly, much to the dismay of two more experienced and amusingly jaded models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who lose some of their gigs to the upstart.
Although coldly beautiful, they sense something youthful and innocent in Jesse, and that want to regain those qualities.
When the movie premiered in May in Cannes, Refn said this about the film in his notes to the press: “The currency of beauty continues to rise and never falls. And as we evolve the lifespan of beauty becomes more limited, while our obsession with it becomes more and more extreme. This obsession can often lead to a unique kind of madness.”
And that’s where the cannibalism comes in: Gigi and Sarah think they can regain what they’ve lost if they literally eat Jesse.
Lending a hand in this dubious plan for a feast is makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who pretends to be Jesse’s friend. But there’s a doubly disturbing side to Ruby — she has an unhealthy attraction to female corpses while working at a night job at a funeral home.
Refn foreshadows the neon demons of L.A. in all sorts of ways, with the subtle licking of blood here and there and the menacing presence of Jesse’s motel manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves). There’s also a mountain lion that threatens Jesse. So there’s no doubt that the young woman is in trouble.
After a while, however, Jesse morphs into something of a monster, too. As she rises to the top, she dumps her only friend, Dean (Karl Glusman), and becomes the epitome of narcissism, as if destined to drown in the water that reflects her image. As you might expect, Refn subverts this mythology in the most perverse of ways.
Despite all the obvious provocations, “The Neon Demon” is actually masterful in its madness. The costumes by Erin Benach are inventive. The music, scored by Cliff Martinez, is excellent. And the cinematography by Natasha Braier has gorgeous hues of red.
As part of Refn’s oeuvre, it fits somewhere between “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” And like “Only God Forgives,” it received lots of boos at its press screening in Cannes.
If you think that bothers Refn, then you don’t understand the director. He thrives on controversy. And that’s what he’s going to get with his latest.
‘The Neon Demon’
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Rating: R, for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, aberrant sexuality, language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo South, Arbor, Metropolitan, Tinseltown.