“Are you high?” the motel manager (played by Keanu Reeves) demands in ‘The Neon Demon,” when Elle Fanning runs up and insists that there’s “something” in her room. He might well ask because although Elle has been in movies where she plays a believable, multi-faceted human being, here she acts from start to finish like she’s just woken up from a coma or perhaps is a mannequin who has magically come to life. Her “character,” if you can call it that, is Jesse, a small-town girl living in a lonely world, who dreams of becoming a professional model in the Big City, so she heads to California. There is a brief backstory, involving deceased parents and (so far) a virginal existence, and we also learn that she is underage, although Christina Hendricks’ character, a modeling agency head, persuades her to boost her age to nineteen. However, the audience does not need to be told point blank about the virgin part, as Elle’s initial wardrobe consists of long, flowing pastel gowns. One even appears to be a floral-patterned shower curtain, but it doesn’t matter because the actress is pretty enough to pull it off – and that’s certainly the opinion of everyone she meets in the movie.
Right off the bat, Elle is befriended by a makeup artist (Jena Malone), who takes her clubbing and later provides her phone number in case Elle needs it in an emergency. She also meets seasoned models, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, who are not exactly thrilled to have competition. Elle does have one friend (Karl Gusman), who helps her put together a portfolio, but she quickly ditches him, although it’s clear to anyone with half a brain watching the movie that he is the only who isn’t using her for something. There is a lot of symbolism: moons, a triangle made of four smaller triangles, tigers, roses and blood, which appear on a regular basis. There is also some floral wallpaper in Elle’s motel room that comes in for close-ups of its own, so I assume that was symbolic, too. Or perhaps it was there on the set to begin with, and they decided to feature it, like in “The King’s Speech” (a vastly superior movie).
As well as lots of shots of the actresses making out (when they’re not trying to slit each other’s throats), there is an actual demon in “The Neon Demon,” who does pretty much what movie demons do. There are many scenes with constantly flashing lights and lots where the boundaries between life and death, sleep and consciousness are blurred. The movie requires Elle to behave like most heroines in horror movies, i.e. completely oblivious to danger signals around her, whether it’s a tiger or someone trying to seduce her. Perhaps it is a challenge of sorts for an intelligent person to play someone without a grain of commonsense.
I initially guessed that “with Keanu Reeves,” meant that Keanu would play the director of a modeling shoot or someone similar, which would be amusing, considering he was pretty enough to model as a teen actor. But instead he plays the motel director, hides behind a lot of facial hair and even looks a little like Ben Affleck. I have seen all the actresses in other movies where they did a decent job, but here, they don’t seem to have any coherent plotline to follow. However, all the models and would-be models certainly look the part, and if you have ever harbored a secret desire to see Jena Malone make out with a corpse, this is the movie for you.