I was pretty psyched to see this no matter what anyone said. I was one of the few people who loved Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film, Only God Forgives, and really admire Bronson. And Drive is fine. Only God Forgives was a bit of a revelation, for one, because the man who composed such outrageously luxuriant and evocative images could not be that stupid, and I found that the scenario was incredibly rich with meaning and resonance. When I read in an interview that he composes films with a kind of dream logic, and tries to sometimes film images from dreams without attempting to catalogue their meaning, it made a lot of sense [and that insight is very helpful here]. And the trailer for this was pretty orgasmic, and I was looking forward to his gorgeous/horrific vision of the modeling business in Los Angeles, a topic I enjoy a satire of, regardless of how broad [except not Zoolander 2, as a friend rightly pointed out].
So how is it? Well, if you didn’t like Only God Forgives, don’t bother, because it is very much in that tone and pacing. Things start well with a gorgeously lush texture of red and blue that moves through different colors as the credits progress. Cut to Elle Fanning as Jesse, lying on a couch with her throat slit. This is for a photo shoot, and occurs while you're still being hopeful for the film, but in retrospect one has to admit that this kind of "criticism" of fashion's wish to shock is straight out of Eyes of Laura Mars, and that was almost forty years ago.
When she goes backstage to remove all the blood, she meets Jena Malone as Ruby, makeup artist. They go to a party, where they meet ice-cold blonde models Sarah and Gigi. They both size up Jesse as a threat, and can’t believe that she’s had no cosmetic surgery [Gigi has had a lot] and that she isn’t fucking anyone. She is sixteen and newly arrived in LA. There is terrific imagery in a hanging contortionist, but it goes nowhere.
Long story short, Jesse starts to rise in the industry. She is told that she has something special, and the film is pretty successful at convincing us of that. She is young and seems very pure and innocent [Fanning was a great find for the role, as she is convincingly beautiful]. There is a good scene where she and Sarah are both at an audition, and Abbey Lee as Sarah really shows the desperate jealousy in her eyes as Jesse gets all the attention and she is ignored. Jesse encounters Sarah in the bathroom later, as is asked how it feels to be the center of so much admiration. “It’s everything,” Jesse responds. Then she cuts her hand and Sarah grabs it and starts sucking. As another review put it: “The models she meets are vampires. No, I mean they’re vampires.” This is where you start to suspect that this movie is not going to have all that much new or insightful to say about the modeling industry and the search for, and belief in beauty as an absolute ideal. But that's okay, it could still blow us away with incredibly evocative images, right?
Yeah, it could. But it doesn't. There are some striking images, but they remain little but evocations, such as a mountain lion that has broken into Jesse’s room. We are told that the girl next to Jesse is thirteen, and after a violent dream sequence with scary hotel owner Keanu Reeves [convincingly threatening], we hear him banging on Jesse’s door, then going in and assaulting what we can only imagine is the thirteen-year-old. We see Jesse’s silhouette as she listens at the wall. Then, well, you suspected there might be a predatory lesbian in here somewhere, didn’t you? I am actually a bit offended that other reviews mention all the “offensive” parts but fail to mention the predatory lesbian, since we’ve had enough of this particular trope, and it's pretty fucking offensive. But the other offensive parts? Masturbation with corpse, murder, blood drinking/bathing, a torrent of blood gushing from a vagina, and finally, eating of regurgitated viscera.
But by that time you have accepted that this film is not going to give you a great deal of insight. It has very evocative passages, and some luscious but meaning-free images, but nowhere near as many as Only God Forgives and far less meaning. It’s too bad, because I was hoping Refn would go crazy with hallucinatory images of beauty and abstraction [as the trailer would have you believe], but surprisingly, there are even fewer stupefyingly gorgeous visuals here than his previous film. And it’s not half as insightful [models lead lives of increasing desperation as they age—thanks for the intelligence!]. But still, it’s an actual movie and you will have seen something thought-provoking and evocative, which is more than you can say for Independence Day: Resurgence.
Anything else? Unfortunately, not really. Overall, one just gets the impression that this film was developed too fast, and not enough care and effort was expended. This would make a good double feature with Terence Malick's Knight of Cups, as that's a male version of a guy losing his grip on reality in Hollywood. They're both dreamy and poetic, they're both about appearance and maintaining one's self in a world of superficiality, and they both ultimately suck. Except I find that a few images from that movie stayed in my mind [and I wasn't sure for a minute whether they were from this movie or not], whereas not much from this movie really stayed in my head at all--except how much I wanted it to be good, and how disappointed I was. It's too bad, I would be so into a hallucinogenic trip-out of a film about the fashion industry, the film I thought this was going to be, but sadly, this isn't it. At all. Steer clear.