The Neon Demon (2016)

  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Drama | Horror | Thriller
  • Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves


When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.


  • The Neon Demon begins with an arresting tableau of a young woman, innocence nevertheless radiating through the semi-geisha and glitter makeup, garbed in blood and couture. She makes for a most beautiful corpse except, as the retreating camera slowly reveals, she is alive though her wellness is threatened at every turn in the strange and disturbing horror fairy tale that marks the latest offering from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn.

    Refn, or NWR as he has billed himself in the opening titles of his latest film, is not one for restraint nor is he, as he has displayed with each passing film, particularly tethered to narrative or performance, at least not in their conventional forms. It’s not that he champions style over substance – for him, the image is the narrative and performance part of the stringently composed mise-en-scène. So perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that, after the noirish romanticism of Drive and the pulpy luridness of Only God Forgives, Refn should alight upon a milieu where, to paraphrase one character, “Image isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

    The gaze and the object reflected and consumed by that gaze thorn through the film. Jesse (Elle Fanning), the young woman featured in the opening image, is one of the hundreds of small town girls pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles. Sixteen but billing herself as nineteen on the advice of her agent (Christina Hendricks), Jesse appears a lamb lost in the woods where predatory mannequins like Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) roam. The phrase “bionic woman” is broached at one point in the film and Sarah and Gigi embody a robotic perfection that is achieved by a surgeon’s knife or Photoshop. In a world where youth is already in decay once the bloom begins, it’s no small wonder that Sarah and Gigi (who has undergone practically every conceivable form of cosmetic surgery) vibrate with hostility at Jesse, whose unmanufactured beauty and security in her looks, threaten their value.

    If the women that surround Jesse resemble predatory insects plotting their kill or vampires craving to feast on her ripe flesh, the men are no less bloodthirsty, ready to ravage Jesse with their cameras or their bodies. Dean (Karl Glusman), the aspiring photographer who may love Jesse in addition to viewing her as an entry into the fashion world, and Jack (Desmond Harrington), the renowned photographer who tells her to take off her clothes and anoints her with smearings of liquid gold, are mirror images of one another – both cadaverous in appearance, both hovering over her like Nosferatus. Hank, the seedy owner (played with tremendous effectiveness by Keanu Reeves) of the even seedier motel in which Jesse resides, has no compunction about pimping or raping the young girls who know better than to stay at his motel but have no other choice. In one unsettling sequence, he slips into Jesse’s room, stands before her sleeping figure, inserts his knife down her throat as she awakens in fright, and whispers at her to open wider. It turns out to be a dream, but the ensuing reality is no less frightening as Jesse presses her ear against the wall to hear the muffled screams of the thirteen-year-old next door as Hank claims his next victim.

    Refn has always been a superb visualist and The Neon Demon finds him taking aesthetic inspiration from the likes of Helmut Newton, whose photographs are postcards of hardboiled glamour in which models seem vampiric or perplexingly corpse-like; the seductive doom of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (which, along with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, could be seen as a not-so-distant companion piece to The Neon Demon); and the Italian giallo films which revelled in its combination of horror and eroticism. The giallo influence can also be heard in Cliff Martinez’s stabbing synths and prickly tinkles. Cinematographer Natasha Braier coats the images with a gloss that feels like embalming fluid; the camera doesn’t so much observe as probe, pierce, and dissect. Reality and illusion are intertwined – images are reflected, mirrored, and surfaced. Erin Benach’s costumes range from the diaphanous off-duty ensembles that speak to Jesse’s nebulous and unformed figure to the almost animalistic carapaces worn by Sarah, Gigi, and Ruby (the brilliant Jena Malone), the makeup artist who may or may not be Jesse’s guardian angel.

    Refn does not skimp on the chic choc – necrophilia, cannibalism, and other forms of sexualised horror are present and accounted for – and he maintains a painfully powerful sense of hallucinatory dread throughout the film. For all the carnivores that surround her, it is Jesse who is the most dangerous animal. She may appear angelic, she may even be pure, but she is also aware of how to get ahead in this particular world. “I’m not as helpless as I look,” she tells Ruby at one point. She’s aware of her power and it’s in the dawning acknowledgement of that power – the sly smiles after scoring each success – that ultimately leads to her downfall.

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  • “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass. True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it she’d be nothing.”

    Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing…which is apparently a news flash in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest glam femme horror feature, The Neon Demon.

    With a mixture of extreme vulgarity and brilliant glamour, this toxic fairy tale is receiving quite the feedback from critics. And you’d imagine Refn would have it no other way.

    The Neon Demon drew boos as well as cheers at a press screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But the film’s director wasn’t there to see it. “I wait outside [during screenings],” says the director. “I get very nervous. I never enjoy it.” The Danish filmmaker got a much better reception that same evening in Cannes, when his movie received a 17-minute standing ovation (and reportedly also led to two fights).

    Refn said he wanted to make a horror film about beauty, a horror satire of Hollywood.Its commentary on the shallowness of the Los Angeles modeling scene didn’t pique my interest. The superficiality of Hollywood/models/actors/society isn’t newsworthy for the majority of us, but, nevertheless, some are hailing this film as “disturbingly wonderful cinema.” But is it really?

    Beauty and the pursuit of beauty are dangerous. The Neon Demon is an absolutely brutal viewing, but not in the way you’d expect. The optimist inside me wanted to go into this movie with an open mind; completely prepared for the strange and unusual that Refn would elegantly vomit onto the screen. What I wasn’t prepared for was how dull and deflated a movie could be even with the inclusions of some serious shock-value scenes.

    When 16-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. In a town where you “might as well retire at 21”, as one character points out, youth becomes a priceless commodity. Maybe it was the casting or the character herself, but I found Fanning/her character simple, dull and lifeless, yet every single supporting character acted like she was the next Kate Moss. Girl, no.

    Not too deep, right? It has all the ingredients to be a made-for-TV Lifetime movie, or perhaps an HBO original movie with proper budgeting. It’s another analysis on the human condition and our obsession with natural beauty. Haven’t we seen this before? It’s basically Black Swan meets Hannibal with lots of neon lighting and glitter. But this is Refn on board the floundering SS Neon Demon, so it’s got to surpass television and hit the festival circuits, the theaters, the big screen. NWR is a pompous man.

    Fanning said in an interview with The Verge that she was drawn to the script because it featured a largely female cast…but every female character is insecure, desperate and batshit crazy. People call Refn a pioneer in film-making, and he is. But following his most celebrated film, 2011’s Drive, I’m not sure what bizarre path this Kanye-esque pioneer is exploring.

    I wouldn’t say I was offended by it, but a little confused as to why it’s being upheld as masterful. Stylized but empty is what I took away from this glittering, malevolent dump. Fortunately, the combination of 80s-style synth score from Cliff Martinez, cinematography and design kept me mesmerized from time to time.

    The best performance of the film is undoubtedly given by Abbey Lee who plays Sarah, a model in the twilight of her career who becomes desperate when Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes in the picture. Jesse may be the next “it” girl in the industry, but it’s Sarah — and Lee — who steals the screen. I find myself being both sympathetic and terrified of her desperate plight to outshine Fanning’s character. She certainly has the model-acting down and can emote more per scene than Fanning’s lifeless, doe-eyed facial expressions. Lee has also been a part of the fashion industry since making her own modeling debut in 2007 and admit that the competitiveness of the industry was something she related to.

    The Neon Demon is meant to be an eye-popping (no pun intended haha), artsy think-piece created to disturb and even appall. Refn is one of the greatest visual storytellers around, but why would he choose to cover a story so bland and disguise it as something magnificent? His style over substance unfortunately overpowers this film. This is a step back from Drive, but a step ahead of the tedious Only God Forgives.

    2011’s Drive was my favorite film of the year and Refn’s most critically praised. The difference between Drive and Neon Demon (or even Only God Forgives) is that there was a passion in the film that the other two lacked. I truly cared about each character in Drive and felt invested in the plot. With Neon Demon, I felt neither. Neon Demon feels more like a vanity project that is trying to see how far it can shock audiences instead of connecting with them.

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