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The Neon Demon: Shiny, Unhappy People

Beauty isn’t everything in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest glossy feature. In fact, it’s hardly anything.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive wasn’t about anything other than its own ability to pose. The film’s nihilist swan dive into its own stylistic excess gave it a cool that applauded our ability to stand outside of it. Drive didn’t pretend it had something profound to say, or that it wasn’t obsessed with itself—that’s why it was so intoxicating to get on its wavelength. It was a movie that got away with something while still risking nothing.

The Neon Demon, however, is further proof that Refn has no clothes. Like the just-as-bad Only God Forgives, Refn’s offensive-if-it-weren’t-so-facile-and-irritating Drive followup, The Neon Demon is a faceplant into the deep end. It’s a deadly combination of self-seriousness and self-indulgence, “shocking” art cinema that’s more about the obnoxious petulance of its director than anything else. This is a movie you want to pick up and throw across the room.

Set in the modeling world, an industry Refn doesn’t even make a passing effort in trying to understand, The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old wannabe who comes to Los Angeles “to make money off how I look.” Because she’s so young, so beautiful, and so seemingly vulnerable, she’s immediately embraced as the next big thing. Because every decade should have its own, less self-aware, Showgirls, Refn of course makes Jesse: a) live in a rundown hotel in Pasadena surrounded by pimps and prostitutes, including a not-sure-what-exactly-I’m-supposed-to-be-doing-here Keanu Reeves; b) team up with a fellow dreamer who isn’t ready for the big time and will ultimately be betrayed by Jesse’s ambition (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noe’s Love); c) incapable of expressing any independent thought that doesn’t relate to her beauty; d) confused and scared by the savagery of the world surrounding her; and e) a virgin. Jesse ends up in the orbit of a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) infatuated with her “innocence” and, most notably, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) whose friendship seems to hide something darker.

The bare bones of a storyline are here, and Refn might have one if he’d shown even the slightest bit of interest. But he doesn’t: He’s much too busy preening and flexing in the mirror. The movie seems to nod to the emptiness of society’s obsession with beauty—which is apparently a news flash to Refn—but its own vapidity far exceeds anything it might ostensibly be satirizing. At one point, Nivola’s fashion designer, in the midst of a soliloquy about how important beauty is, says, with utter seriousness, “beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” which is Vince Lombardi as paraphrased by an idiot. Refn’s message seems to be, “we love beauty too much, so I will destroy it” which is less about beauty and our relation to it and more about the director eagerness to stomp his feet and have a temper tantrum. But even that’s giving him too much credit: Everything’s a scam in Refn’s world, and any investment we provide in the world of his film, or the people in it, is a joke on us. He’s a filmmaker who mocks us for giving a shit.

One of the stranger things about The Neon Demon is that it barely seems to contain any characters. Sure, it has actors, and they all do the best they can, to varying degrees of success. (Malone is compelling no matter what she does, but Reeves looks totally confused, and Fanning is an intelligent actress who appears to spend most of the film looking at Refn off-screen, waiting for him to give her some idea what she’s supposed to be doing.) But there are no establishing traits, prevailing motivations, driving arcs for anyone in this film. People show up, they pose for a bit, and then they show up a while later a completely different person, screaming about something or other. Refn makes feints at a couple metaphors—beauty is cannibalism, or necrophilia, or something—but it’s really all just an excuse to Freak You Out, man. By the end of the film, when The Neon Demon has essentially devolved into Refn throwing feces at the camera, screaming, “Can you handle this?” you’ll have long since tuned out.

The sadness of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives, is that Refn is undeniably skilled at the shock he’s so obviously desperate to provide. This movie is scored, like his previous films, by Cliff Martinez, and the pulsating, hypnotic soundtrack gives Refn’s worlds the illusion of depth and scope. Refn can hit you, but there’s nothing behind his jabs. Refn never tries to invest in anything other than his his fevered insistence you pay attention to him. At Cannes this year, Refn blasted Lars Van Trier—his clear forerunner in indie auteur foot-stomping—saying he was “over the hill” and has “done a lot of drugs.” Refn and Von Trier have some surface similarities: They both love attention, they both have clear technical skill and they both are willing to pound their audiences into submission. But Von Trier, for all his faults, has real feeling behind his movies; they are, in their different ways, about his own insecurities, fears, and battles with his own depression. Von Trier goes all in, for better or worse. Refn’s movies are all about Refn jerking you around just for the sake of it. He has nothing new to say, nothing worthwhile to add. He’s screaming in your face. And sometimes you just have to let a child cry himself out.

Grade: D+

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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit