‘The Neon Demon’ is all heat and no light

Abby Lee in “The Neon Demon”
Abby Lee in “The Neon Demon” Broad Green Pictures

The 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 The 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.

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

 1/2  (out of five)

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast: Elle Fanning, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks

Rated: R (disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and strong language)

Running time: 117 min.