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Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), The Neon Demon is an incredibly visually striking film that tries to dig deep at the fashion world, but unravels in its second half, becoming grotesquely cartoonish.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring young model that moves to LA in the hopes of making it big. and her youth and beauty quickly get a lot of attention in the fashion world. She befriends a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and antagonizes Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), two other models that are willing to take drastic measures to preserve their status. Underneath all the glamor of the industry lies a ruthlessness that will either transform Jesse, or rip her to pieces.
While it moves at a slow, calculated pace, one thing that The Neon Demon cannot be accused of is being boring. Every single frame holds your attention with its dark, minimalist approach and the score is outstanding, matching the tone and the visual flare perfectly. The problem is just about everything else. The Neon Demon only scratches the surface when it comes to fashion world, crafting a bizarre, surreal take of the industry that offers very little beyond fascinating, and often unsettling imagery.The characters are one-dimensional, in a way that feels like it’s trying to say something about their superficiality, but instead comes across as them being underdeveloped. Jesse technically goes through the most growth, and even then it’s presented almost as if a metaphorical switch was flipped, causing a sudden drastic change in her behavior after a lengthy transition sequence. That unfortunately does not leave the cast a lot to work with. They do their best, but it often comes down to repeating the same tricks and mannerisms over and over again. Just count how many times Jena Malone bites her lower lip. Keanu Reeves also pops up for a minor supporting role and sadly mostly phones it in.
The most disappointing aspect about The Neon Demon is how utterly predictable it becomes. There are a few moments where the movie can genuinely catch you off-guard, but the second half, particularly the ending, goes to such extreme lengths to be grotesquely disturbing that a certain point I was able to accurately predict not only what will happen next, but what certain characters will say to try and shock you. It’s somehow both predictable and structurally incoherent at the same time.
There’s never really an overarching point to be made here about the fashion industry, inner vs. outer beauty or vanity. They are present in the movie and they are often brought up in conversation, but it rarely, if ever feels like anything of worth is being said about them. It’s all fluff, and not in a meta-textual way – The Neon Demon just superficially looks at superficiality and the ugliness and cruelty that can come with it.
It can be captivating at times, but for the most part, The Neon Demon is just morbidly unpleasant. Its visual flare is not enough to make up for its lack of depth or its outlandish third act.