NEON DEMON (2016) is like the models it depicts, beautiful and provocative but superficial.
In this film, innocent, fresh-faced, and naive 16-year-old Jesse (the cherubic Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to take a crack at a career as a model. Based on her looks and a certain quality she has, an agency signs her immediately, and she’s working photo shoots and fashion runways. During all this, she must contend with the seedy manager at the motel where she’s living, one of Keanu Reeves’ best performances, and creepy men who otherwise rule the fashion world. During her runway modeling, she has a vision of the neon demon, after which she embraces her inner ruthlessness and vanity. Unfortunately, her jealous colleagues are even more ruthless and have their own ideas.
This art-house quasi-horror flick offers plenty of titillating visuals and a few piercing horror moments related to blood, cannibalism, and even necrophilia, but otherwise grinds on and on without much substance until we reach the horror stuff. The horror really doesn’t occur until the climax and mostly the denouement, by which point it lopsidedly offers a powerful scene that nonetheless feels tacked on. If you read interviews with the director, there’s a ton of symbolism going on, from Jesse’s horrific dream of the motel manager to the neon triangles to the mountain lion in Jesse’s room, but it was kind of lost on me without a stronger story, stronger characterization of the side players, and faster pacing. The film works as a rumination on the meaning of beauty, but I didn’t connect with the story enough to look deeper at its meaning.
Overall, it’s a beautifully shot art-house film that for me worked very well on a visual level but was ultimately lopsided and superficial in its delivery.