The Neon Demon Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) is a master of mood, sensation and garish color. (He’s color-blind, so his palette is all primary, no pastels.) He’s not exactly deft with narrative, though, and The Neon Demon, his latest movie, constructs its eye-catching images not so much around a story or character as around a blunt message, to gradually diminishing returns. The very first shot lays everything out, showing teenage protagonist Jesse (Elle Fanning) reclining on a couch as blood drips from her neck. This turns out to be just a provocative photo shoot—Jesse is an aspiring model, newly arrived in LA hoping to make it big—but The Neon Demon never stops linking female beauty and violence.
As Jesse quickly becomes the town’s new It Girl, her friends (played by Jena Malone and Bella Heathcote, among others) become increasingly insecure about their own desirability, until they literally want a piece of her. The movie’s inevitable descent into Grand Guignol horror would pack more of a wallop were it not so blatantly dedicated to underlining society’s oppressive female beauty standards, to the exclusion of anything else of interest. It’s a worthy, progressive thesis, but subtext elevated to text makes for tedious viewing, even when it’s gorgeous as this.