“She’s a diamond among a sea of glass,” says a fashion designer of the pretty but not outrageously remarkable ingénue who has just arrived in L.A. to be part of its haughty fashion scene. Her name is Jesse and she stands out yet it is hard at first to figure out why. The body isn’t remarkable, the face isn’t remarkable, but in her natural state of being she is something special. The other models know it and she knows it, and that’s the beginning of her problems. What happens next is a devolving horror show fit for Stephen King.
The Neon Demon is a neo-nightmare, a strange canvas of imagery that will either entice you or repel you. Most have chosen to be repelled, but I found something to grab onto. Maybe I’m just feeling generous. In the same week that I stand alone in giving positive marks to Independence Day: Resurgence, I now stand virtually alone in my admiration of The Neon Demon. Critics across the board have vented their spleen about this movie, dismissing it as a hackneyed helping of unappetizing pretentious vapidness served up with heaps of self-indulgence and dipped in arthouse sauce. Are they right? Well . . . yeah. But come on, a little self-indulgence never hurt anybody.
The movie is a bizarre commentary on the world of fashion models told through breath-taking images that are art-directed within an inch of their lives. How much arthouse imagery you are willing to stomach depends on you. The superficiality of the fashion world is not exactly surprising, but where the movie is willing to take it is a matter of taste (cannibalism? necrophilia? Yeah, they’re both here). Jesse’s journey is a nightmare scenario that moves back and forth between what is real and what is not. Where the line is drawn is one of the great challenges presented to us. This is not a visceral experience. All of the supporting characters in this movie are out for themselves. They’re all terrible. They all live and work in an industry that is, by it’s very nature, cheap and superficial. But the thrust of their motivation seems to be the law of the jungle.
The central core of the film is Jesse (Elle Fanning) who is pretty without being gorgeous and a country girl without being country fried. She has something that the industry moguls want to sell and something that the other models want to possess. The other models are sculpted, chiseled, honed to perfection with the help of their plastic surgeons. Jesse has a natural quality that isn’t forced, that isn’t bought and paid for. With that, she finds that she has a target on her head.
What’s tricky is that his film starts out as a portrait of the L.A. fashion scene but quickly turns into a revenge thriller that has the pacing of The Shining and the brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Jesse’s arrives in L.A. with the countenance of a virgin, yet as time goes on she becomes a victim of her own image, and then turns perpetrator. She knows how other models see her and what they want from her. Yet, she finds out too late that she is in over her head. They don’t just envy her, they want their pound of flesh.
That description makes this movie sound a bit more conventional then it is. This very spare plot spends a great deal of time swimming in neon-colored imagery that is at times shockingly horrifying and at other times shockingly beautiful. That’s odd for me to say since the movie comes from Nicholas Winding Rfen, a Danish director whose work I’ve not come to like very much in the past. I absolutely hated his last film Only God Forgives dismissing it as a hapless arthouse mess that, I think, was trying to be a martial arts movie. It had a lot of interesting imagery wrapped up in a story I couldn’t follow or even care about. With The Neon Demon I find myself surrendering to Rfen’s imagery. Every shot, every moment, every movement in this film has been organized and touched up and pieced together with mathematical precision. He cares about the images he presents here. They all have a purpose even if you don’t immediately know what they are. He is obviously influence by Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch with grand bows to Dario Argento. He’s made a horror movie about a horrible world made up of horrible people who do horrible things, ugly things, inhuman things.
Look, this is not a movie for everyone. If you read the majority of reviews you’ll think it’s not a movie for anyone. Where you end up with this movie is a matter of taste. Again, this is not a visceral experience. You can’t place yourself in the situation because the movie exists so far out of time that you often feel like your watching something piped in from another planet. I like that approach. I sometimes appreciate a director who isn’t reaching out to connect with me. The Neon Demon is a movie that is impossible to get close to. When it’s over you walk away shaking your head, but if you’re willing to surrender to it, themes start to emerge, connections start to be made in your mind as you reflect back on it. This is a movie that redefines the word ‘challenging’.