Movie review: 'Neon Demon' is more than just a beautiful face

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was met with a mix of cheers and boos - reportedly more on the negative end of that spectrum - it's been apparent that Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" would be a very divisive movie (i.e., one of my favorite kinds).

And it was - even internally. I had to watch it a second time to decide how I really felt about it. Was it actually good? Or was I dazzled by the style and reeling from the left hook of the (truly) shocking third act?

Some friends and colleagues whose opinions I really respect hated this movie, and I mean,hated. You may not see a movie this year that is easier to hate, and that's a position I fully respect here.

The number one charge leveled against "Neon Demon" is an obvious one: that it's pure and unadulterated style-over-substance. And it's obvious because this movie just gushes style.

Refn's visual style is in hyper drive here. That Technicolor-noir thing that is his signature is met with a virtual glitter bomb and some dream sequences that are as bonkers as you would expect. This could be a deeply profound movie, and the style would still choke the substance. And I'm not here to argue that it's a deeply profound movie. It's just not quite as shallow as it may seem on the surface.

And appearing shallow on the surface may be part of Refn's point here, as he explores the world of high-fashion modeling through the eyes of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young, aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles. She soon finds herself a darling of the business and the subject of exploitation, jealousy and wrath.

Refn's view into this "chew you up and spit you out" business is an ugly look at beauty obsession. From predatory photo shoots to the pettiness of her model peers, this hardly glorifies this world, even as it presents it in a glossy shell. The film itself has been derided as exploitative and misogynistic, but might that also be a reflection of its subject matter? It's debatable at least.

And while I don't usually like to spoil endings, this one at least requires a warning. If you are easily shocked, do not see "Neon Demon." If you are on a first date, do not see "Neon Demon." If you are with your mom, do not see "Neon Demon."

But what seemed like shock for the sake of shock upon first viewing - and it is on some level - was revealed to have been better supported and foreshadowed upon second viewing.

Refn is definitely a provocateur, but those audiences who enjoy being provoked should probably decide if they love it or hate it for themselves. We'll both be right.

"The Neon Demon"

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3½ stars out of 4