Glossy but vacuous The Neon Demon might move you to say that director Nicolas Winding Refn has an eye for compelling images, but you may also find yourself wondering whether his movie connects to a brain.
Senseless as it is stylized, Neon Demon takes us into Refn's idea of the intensely competitive world of high fashion modeling.
Let's just say Refn exaggerates to maximum levels, punctuating his movie with scenes that surely were intended to shock. If lesbian necrophilia weren't enough to set the mood, Refn throws in some cannibalism because ... well ... in Los Angeles, it's a model-eat-model world.
With its coolly conceived lighting design, its anesthetized performances and a mood that vampires might find a bit chilly, Refn serves up a drama that focuses on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a rootless young woman who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career.
Jesse tells others that prettiness constitutes her only attribute. She's convinced she can make money from her looks.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse projects a midwestern aura of innocence that's supposed to be irresistible. As Jesse herself sums it up, everyone wants to be her, so much so that women will starve themselves on the chance that they might become second-rate imitations of her.
The faint aroma of critique rises from this purple-hued carcass of a movie, something about society's preoccupation with the way women look, beauty over substance -- and a limited idea about beauty, at that.
Refn -- the director of the over-rated Drive and the less-admired Only God Forgives -- is as guilty of dehumanizing his characters as any modeling agency or fashion photographer. What meaning can necrophilia have in a movie in which everyone looks half dead?
Despite what appears to be a rapid rise to the top of the modeling heap, Jesse maintains her residence in a sleazy Pasadena motel where the rooms are covered with fading floral wallpaper. At one point, a mountain lion invades her room. Oh, the dangers that lurk in Pasadena. Oh, the attempt to surprise the audience with an art grenade.
Keanu Reeves plays the motel's sleazy manager, one of those small roles that makes you wonder whether he dropped by the set for an afternoon. Reeves carries a knife into one of the movie's more chilling scenes.
Jena Malone portrays a make-up artist with a crush on Jesse. Two additional models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are Jesse's competition. They're heanto plastic surgery. Think of them as fashion cyborgs.
It's not easy to tell whether Refn is aiming for satire or horror. If it's the latter, the biggest horror involves the movie's monotony, a steady beat of boredom interrupted only by late-picture servings of gross-out violence, one such episode involving an eyeball.
Perhaps it's fitting. The eyeball is the only thing Refn rewards with this nonsensically slick bit of rot.