Review: High art, low trash collide in ‘The Neon Demon’

“Drive” director’s horror-trash shocker is a provocative piece of exploitative eye candy, not for the faint of stomach

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

As visually resplendent as it is narratively vacant, “The Neon Demon” is a sicko-slick shlock-shock horror show that mixes low-end grindhouse taboos with high-grade arthouse aesthetics.

It aims exclusively to titillate and push buttons, and boy does it ever, its depictions of cannibalism and necrophilia meant to provoke a reaction, any reaction. Staying until the end is one thing, but bad boy director Nicolas Winding Refn would probably be just as happy if you walked out of the theater in disgust.

Refn is the audaciously talented visual dynamo who struck a nerve with “Drive” and then drove nearly everyone away with his banal, punishing follow-up, “Only God Forgives.”

“The Neon Demon” is even more fetishistic and inward, and critics who think the filmmaker is a high art hack are given plenty of ammo for their arguments. But that’s beside the point.

The director’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles’ modeling world, which is like “Black Swan” for the fashion mag set, is high-gloss exploitation trash, and Refn revels in it. He seems to have made “The Neon Demon” strictly for midnight crowds, who will cackle at it (“the eye!”) for eternity.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old orphan fresh off the bus and looking to make a splash in modeling. Fanning gets the blankness of the role right, her dreamlike stare and dead line delivery a metaphor for the cold emptiness of L.A. model culture.

There’s no denying the beauty of Refn’s images, even if his puerile instincts are at odds with his obvious pretensions. Those who cry it’s shallow and ugly won’t be wrong; others will love it for those very reasons.

(313) 222-2284

‘The Neon Demon’


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

Running time: 117 minutes