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The Neon Demon wears its influences proudly, but to call it a pastiche or homage would be a disservice. While ads make it look like a cross between Black Swan and a Madonna video, critics have lambasted it for its perceived lack of depth. The marketers and movie snobs both have it wrong, though. Nicolas Winding Refn has simply made a gritty, surreal thriller, the like of which we haven’t seen in a while.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) dreams of a modeling career. She’s been in Los Angeles for a little while, staying in a cheap motel run by the shady, sadistic Hank (Keanu Reeves). Creepy photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) has big-time aspirations for them both. He’s soon left behind when Jesse comes under the care of Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist with ulterior motives. No one is who they seem to be, not even Jesse, as she quickly transforms into “one of them.”
The Neon Demon‘s Los Angeles is ruled by vapid women and brutal men, where plastic surgery is as normal as cough syrup. While the titular devil is eventually revealed, the term neon demon can also be seen as a metaphor for the fashion industry. Despite its Valley of the Dolls pedigree, though, there’s nary a coke line or pill bottle to be seen. Fame is the real drug, and it consumes all who fall under its influence. The film is colorful, but rarely glamorous.
Refn brings his requisite deliberate pace and detached performances, but peppers the film with enough nightmare imagery to shock even the hardest midnight moviegoers. Not-so-subtle nods to cinematic heroes are displayed, as always. Like Drive, The Neon Demon often feels like a movie smoothie, with the odd chunk of Stanley Kubrick, Brian DePalma, David Lynch, and even John Waters. Fanning is better than you’d expect, while the supporting cast does a fine job of creating a world where no one can be trusted. The end result is a fashionista Carnival of Souls, an adult fairy tale in the truest sense. The characters aren’t likable in the least, but in the end, you’ll understand why. There’s a twist ending, but it’s well-earned.
Refn’s played a beautiful trick here, but it might be to the wrong audience. Don’t be fooled: this is a badass horror movie masquerading as a respectable piece of art. The Neon Demon delivers as a thriller, leaves itself open to interpretation, and sticks with you after you leave. If you’re looking for the next great cult flick, this is it.
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios/Broadgreen Pictures