“Neon Demon,” the latest mind-bender from out-there director Nicolas Winding Refn, is a two-hour fever dream about back-stabbing models with paper-thin bodies — and personalities. Sometimes it’s bizarre in a good, David Lynch kind of way; other times, it’s bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.
Refn (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”) gets off to a promising start with a bloody photo shoot in an austere Los Angeles studio. Cliff Martinez’s dazzling score sets a seductive, creepy tone. Then we meet aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has been in town for two seconds before a mega-agent (Christina Hendricks, deliciously vile) tabs her as the next “It Girl.”
Jesse also catches the eye of Dean (Karl Klusman), the only person with anything resembling a moral compass, and draws the ire of several ambitious models, who appear to be cast-offs from a vampire brood on “True Blood.” At this point, Refn is setting up a preposterously fun, if twisted, little story — or so we think.
But as “Neon Demon” plods on, we figure out that we’re slowly going nowhere, that we’re witnessing a series of visually arresting set-pieces that are nothing else but visually arresting set-pieces. In its latter half, the movie doesn’t have a graceful way to get off the runway, so it resorts to shock value, including an embarrassing scorned lesbian scene and a moment of necrophilia that’s there just to be there.
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To be sure, Refn’s considerable flair keeps us alert with some eyeball-popping moments, and some of the actors in brief roles shine: In addition to Hendricks; Keanu Reeves stands out as a sleazy hotel manager, as does Desmond Harrington, who plays a demented photographer.
But these pleasures can’t cover up a nagging problem: We don’t care an iota about any of these vapid models, who are props instead of characters. And the narratively challenged film seems conflicted: It critiques our obsession with models and beauty and style, even as it obsesses about those very same things. There is a lot of flash, but little substance.
‘The Neon Demon’
Rated R. Time: 1:57.