Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has arrived in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a model. She has photographs taken of herself in murder victim poses to drum up interest, and it seems to work out for her as she is noticed, though first, as she wipes off the makeup in the dressing room, she catches the attention of the makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who starts asking her various questions about herself, drawing out the revelation that Jesse's parents have died, until she reaches the query she was most interested in: would she like to go to a party? What kind of party, the girl wonders aloud. A fun party, is the answer, so off she goes, where she will meet older models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee)…
This trio will be very significant in Jesse's future, as director Nicolas Winding Refn paid yet another arthouse tribute to the exploitation movies he loved. As with his previous film Only God Forgives, this proved divisive, though not as much as that effort had been, as if after Drive had failed to conjure up a comparable movie his audience was shrinking to the diehard fans who naturally were more appreciative than the more casually interested viewers who took one look at this and either did not know what to make of it or were bored to tears. It was certainly a slow-moving, stilted experience, but plenty of art films were, the crux of the matter was whether any of it was worthwhile at all.
The real star of this was Natasha Braier whose cinematography remained sleek and striking even as the story quickly began to drag. Under Refn's instruction she rendered every shot worthy of an expensive pop video, and provided the best motive to keep watching no matter what you thought of the rest of this, for good or ill. The locations away from Jesse's rundown motel home (operated by a sleazy Keanu Reeves) were all highly stylised and possibly deserved a better plot to play out within them, instead of this twenty-first century fairy tale about an innocent led astray by the big bad wolves of the fashion industry. Any hopes that Refn had something serious to say on the subject of how that profession chews up and spits out young women were largely fruitless.
After all, most of us had heard horror stories about the callous treatment of models as commodities, but when they were turned into a literal horror story it just went too far in its overemphatic manner, no matter that it actually showed more restraint than perhaps it needed to. Not in every scene, and there was bloodshed, but even the kinky sex appeared set on getting a rise out of the audience rather than serving up anything remotely like a serious commentary. Some compared this to showbiz nightmare movies like Valley of the Dolls, Showgirls or Black Swan each of which generated wildly differing responses, and it is accurate to observe it owed something to that subgenre of melodrama, but all it had to add were those gleaming images. You searched for any kind of integrity in its substance, and found you were seeking in vain.
It did not help that everyone performed as if English was not their native language, including the cast members for whom English was their native language, which should have lent the proceedings a camp quality that might have rescued it, only a sense of humour here was purely of the nasty, victimising variety, should that make you laugh. Otherwise, you were stuck with actors glacially going through the motions as dictated by their director, which no matter how silly it became also made watching The Neon Demon monotonous. The impression was of a piece straining for controversy as a method of drumming up publicity and not tackling any subjects sincerely, which scuppered its uses as anything other than a horror yarn for those who thought themselves above the usual methods of going about such genre works, and had you yearning for Refn to give up the aching for pretension and serve up something amusingly goofy with no such caveats that what you were seeing may look nice enough, but rang hollow. Although it sounded nice too, thanks to Cliff Martinez on soundtrack duties. All surface pleasures, basically.