This fashion-centric horror starts out with an eerie John Carpenter-esque score, before treating us to some pink and purple Argento hues…
So far so good.
But for a flick that takes itself oh so seriously, and is as visually arresting and, it should be said, fashion forward, The Neon Demon has a pretty straight-ahead narrative: a blank-eyed starlet lands in Los Angeles to pursue her modeling dreams and is exploited along the way.
Elle Fanning is miscast as the lead as young Jesse — she’s not high fashion enough to believably wow industry types (which includes a fun turn by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as an agent who suggests that Jesse lie about her age and be perennially 19). She’s befriended by makeup artist Ruby, pursued by suitor Dean, and offered no-tell motel accommodations by skuzzy Hank (a surprisingly grizzled Keanu Reeves).
The narrative absolutely crawls along, as Fanning’s Jesse has little to do but look startled. The fashion shoots aren’t nearly as visually stylin’ as the rest of the film either.
Dean predictably proffers (unheeded) advice about how debased and exploitative the industry is, and Jesse slides into the fashion world that’s dog-eat-dog (if you’ll forgive the eating expression, when not much is being eaten but salad)
Ultimately though, The Neon Demon is stuck in no man’s land: not sleazy enough to count as exploitation, and not over-the-top chic enough to accurately depict a newly-minted model’s milieu.
Critic Chris Alexander asked director Nicolas Winding Refn about Jess Franco’s influence (NWF claims to have “never been exposed to a lot of Franco’s work”) but this viewer couldn’t help but wonder what Dario Argento might’ve done with this material. After all, no director is as Milan runway as DA.
Wonderful ambition, with a couple of bona fide scares, so one can’t find total fault with it. The Neon Demon is a look, even if it’s ultimately unsatisfying.
*** (out of 5)