"The Neon Demon" Loses The Plot In Ghastly Third Act

At the halfway mark of Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek, sultry fashion industry polemic “The Neon Demon,” moviegoers might be inclined to drop to one knee and propose. Much of the film is as potent an elixir as the “Drive” auteur has mixed to date, marrying sensual visuals to a dreamlike Tinseltown yarn (the film borrows heavily from David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”). Between Refn’s reliably electric imagery and Cliff Martinez’s crystalline score, it gets to be intoxicating.

But jump forward less than an hour and a once happy union between filmmaker and audience might have the latter calling for a restraining order.

The film opens on a macabre photo shoot. The subject is a 16-year-old orphan named Jesse (Elle Fanning), soon to pose as a 19-year-old to make it in showbiz (more specifically, in the dog-eat-dog world of fashion where twenty-somethings are considered ancient history). An as-yet-unidentified male photographs her. Crimson cascades from her neck, her lifeless eyes flanked by face jewels. If it wasn’t made clear from the initials adorning the opening titles (NWF), it is now: we are watching a Nicolas Winding Refn movie.

Within minutes the filmmaker has effortlessly populated this world with beautiful, ugly people, and it’s funny and incisive. For a while. There’s Jena Malone as make-up artist Ruby, lapping up Refn’s willfully hollow dialogue and sitcom-style line spacing (the actors consistently pause between lines as if they’re waiting for a laugh; it’s ingenious). Next, there’s Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Gigi and Sarah, two inveterate, downtrending models, and Keanu Reeves turning in a minor but foreboding performance as the manager at Jesse’s motel.

And then there’s Alessandro Nivola who lends the picture its most memorable performance as a designer infatuated with Jesse. The way his unnamed character pontificates on external beauty as the be-all, end-all of existence is deeply funny, defining Jesse’s star quality as not only commodity, but transcendence. He singlehandedly wills the girl’s success, bringing seething jealousy out of Gigi and Sarah. Jesse has “it” and they’ll do anything to take it from her.

Refn’s visuals here are unsurprisingly marvelous, on par with his underappreciated “Only God Forgives”. The lavender Hollywood sky often looks good enough to eat with a spoon, slowly lulling us into a false sense of something higher, hypnotizing with lights and sounds and seductive shots at an industry that’s all too easy to mock. But the worst version of Refn the provocateur is lurking in the bushes, waiting to bludgeon us with an aluminum bat.

With act III comes necrophilia, a blood orgy, and cannibalism, taking the movie’s “dog-eat-dog” metaphor to its literal extreme. Scenes that are intended to be confrontational instead come off as stupid, exploding all of the subtly seditious storytelling that came before. Refn has always been a go-big-or-go-home filmmaker, but here that sensibility betrays him. He’s underestimated his own stylistic power, calling on cheap parlor tricks to loudly convey things the film had already conveyed beautifully.

The cast suffers the most for the picture’s late-game histrionics. Jesse’s fate robs Fanning of mining any meaning out of the character and Malone’s unfortunate scene with a corpse marks a career low point. (It’s more than repulsive; it’s absolutely gratuitous.) Reeves and Nivola escape unscathed before things go to pot, but Heathcote and Lee are tasked with carrying the film’s climax and they’re absolutely not up to it. It’s a moment that’s supposed to be laughable, but not in the way it ends up being. We’re not laughing at the scene, but at the staging and performances. At how terribly wrong the movie has gone.

Perhaps the film’s final half hour is a metaphor for itself, an externally beautiful thing all twisted and ugly underneath. But that’s no excuse for how poorly it’s written or how tonally out of balance it becomes. “The Neon Demon” is a great film and then a terrible one, two sides of the same coin that’s ultimately worth pocketing. But like physical beauty, it’s a currency that’s unlikely to hold up over time. For a richer experience, watch Jonathan Glazer’s masterful “Under The Skin” instead.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 24, 2016
Studio: Broad Green Pictures
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)