The Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn makes movies with more tone than tension, more feel than feeling.
Every shot is immaculately composed and often held several beats too long. Can’t move on until the viewer’s had a chance to appreciate the portents in every poetic image.
Sometimes the material — a get-away driver’s attack of conscience in “Drive”, a supernaturally psychotic and scenery-chewing convict in “Bronson” — overwhelms this sense that Refn would be happier as a still “art” photographer. And sometimes, as in his horrors-of-the-modeling-trade thriller “The Neon Demon,” his indulgences just take over and deaden the movie.
“Demon” tells the story of Jesse, a Georgia beauty whose youth (she’s 16) and fresh look make her the new darling of LA’s pretentious and cannibalistic modeling scene.
“That little deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want,” the too-helpful makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) purrs.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naif among the professional waifs of this world, a mere child surrounded by eating disorders, vanity, cutthroat cruelty and predators of every stripe who prey on unblemished beauty. An agent (Christina Hendricks) takes Jesse on, lightly quizzing her on whether she can take the competition — the skinnier, the more beautiful, those who would undermine her with a dismissive look or veiled insult.
Because that’s what she gets from Ruby’s model-pals, Gigi and Sarah. “The Neon Demon” reminds us that by these standards, a Jena Malone isn’t even in the “beauty” conversation. Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee are stunning specimens, like aliens. And they have fangs. Not literally, of course.
Gigi (Heathcoate) on the surgery that makes her competitive in the “most beautiful” sweepstakes — “Plastic is just good grooming.”
The virginal Jesse is almost overwhelmed. But her confidence grows with every attention from the omnivorous and silent star photographer (Desmond Harrington). No, she has no talent, no education and no skills.
“I’m pretty,” she tells the younger photographer who wants to be her beau (Karl Glusman). “I can make money off that.”
Their “expiration date” is 21, maybe even 20. They’re used and abused at every stage of the process. And yet still they come, longing to make money and eventually marry money, against all odds. The tyranny of “the new, the young, the fresh” has never seemed clearer.
“True beauty is the one currency we have,” a designer (Alessandro Nivola) opines. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the ONLY thing!”
Which is why Refn fills the edges of his film with grotesquerie. There’s a sleazy motel owner (Keanu Reeves) who preys on the models who book rooms in his dive. A mountain lion sneaking into an empty room is merely a reminder that this guy isn’t the apex predator in this universe. Ruby’s side-job is doing makeup at a mortuary. Nobody is happy, no one eats and almost no one smiles.
Fanning (“Super 8”) has the swanlike features that allow her to be transformed into a convincing model, and a natural gawkiness that works for the character.
But Refn’s skewering of this empire of awfulness is undercut by his plodding, portentous pacing. Scene after scene — often conversations staged in austere, Scandinavian minimalism and echoing silence — goes on too long. The techno music and obscure symbols that pop up between conversations don’t resonate.
And when the film’s hundred minutes of dread turn, occasionally, to genuine violence, we feel little. Our emotions mirror the movie’s — drained away, wasted, frivolously spent for the sake of effect.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Credits: Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. An Amazon Studios/Broadgreen release.
Running time: 1:58