Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn makes movies from images he paints in his head. Sometimes the result is mesmerizing, as in Pusher, Bronson and especially Drive. Sometimes the movie just lies there like a bad idea ready to be put out of its misery. Only God Forgives is that kind of Refn mistake (and, to my mind, so are Refn’s Lincoln commercials with a muttering Matthew McConaughey). But his new one, The Neon Demon, is a special kind of awful. It’s not that I can’t buy the premise that the Los Angeles fashion world is producing a world of jealous models who suck the life out of each other by becoming vampires. That sounds reasonable. What I can’t buy is that Refn has made a movie this lifeless and devoid of human interest.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, the new kid in fashion town. She’s a natural beauty so everyone wants to hate her — but not until after they fuck her. Ruby (Jena Malone) plays a makeup artist who practically drools at the sight of Jesse. It’s even worse for the surgically enhanced older models, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, who want to kill their young replacement in the photo-shoot pantheon.
Wait, am I making this sound intriguing? It isn’t. Not even when Keanu Reeves shows up as a motel manager of surpassing creepiness. A mountain lion roams around Keanu’s dump, which is always a bad sign. When Jesse has trouble with her boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), Ruby invites her to share a mansion where she lives with models who sport fangs. As played by Malone, Ruby showed some life at the start. But after Refn shows her heavily making out with a corpse — she doubles as a mortuary cosmetician — it’s just not the same. I’d talk about the acting, but I never saw the cast doing any; it’s all posing. Even the sex and violence have lost their allure, and every take is drawn out with such excruciating precision that you want to scream. Refn seems to saying that the beauty business is superficial and needs to be avoided. Ditto this movie.