The Neon Demon: An In-Depth Film Review

The Neon Demon Red Band Trailer (2016)

*** This review contains spoilers ***

Elle Fanning, “Jesse”, The Neon Demon:

Jesse: “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.”1

The Neon Demon, Rated R, 1hr 58.

My Rating: 4/5


Elle Fanning                …Jesse

Jena Malone                …Ruby

Karl Glusman              …Dean

Abbey Lee                   …Sarah

Bella Heathcote      …Gigi

Keanu Reeves             …Hank

                 Christina Hendricks         …Roberta Hoffmann


What’s striking about the film, The Neon Demon is its overall beauty despite its later sinister and evil storyline. The cinematography, settings and people are breathtaking. But what lurks beneath the surface, which I believe is deliberate, is anything but. A Horror-Thriller film by Nicolas Winding Refn who also brought us Drive and Only God Forgives starring Ryan Gosling, nails the vacuous and fleeting impression that beauty leaves us with. And like his previous films, it is a bit pretentious too. Substance the writer-director of this film Refn reasons is less important than how something or someone appears. His film is saturated with examples of this. The film itself is a testament to this credo lacking in both profundity and overall storytelling with little to no substantial plot. In its finest interpretation, the film is pure almost literary quality Art; meant to provoke and elicit a response from the viewer-consumer. And it does exactly that: You either love it or hate it. But you react. Which I believe is the main intent of the filmmaker.

The film opens with a young aspiring model named Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, reclining on a sofa drenched in fake viscous blood in what appears to be a makeshift film studio. She’s being photographed for the first time by a young photographer named Dean who “discovered” her online, played by Karl Glusman. The scene is dark but punctuated by bright white and cherry red neon lights that trace the outline of the set and frame Jesse. The scene foreshadows Jesse’s ultimate demise. Throughout the film various symbols of occultism appear subtly dotted along with neon highlighted pyramids. The color Red is also frequently used in a Show versus Tell type of way in various scenes which Refn is famous for.

Sia – Waving Goodbye (The Neon Demon OST)

In the beginning of the film, everything is surreal encased by hot neon and allure hiding the true nature of it. It doesn’t even appear as though it’s horror film until much later. The setting for this film is in Los Angeles, a city known for chewing and spitting out talent. Ruby a synonym for the color Red as discussed earlier, is played by Jena Malone. She’s a make-up artist that moonlights at a second job doing make-up at a morgue. On the set where Jesse is photographed, Ruby recognizes Jesse as a newbie and befriends her. She notices Jesse’s innate beauty and comments on her pristine alabaster skin. Jesse also discloses to Ruby that her parents are dead and that she is essentially alone in the world. She invites Jesse to a party where she introduces her to two other models, Gigi and Sarah played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee.

Older, wiser and hardened by the modeling industry the girls are intrigued by Jesse’s raw beauty and naiveté. And in an industry where shallowness and vanity are prized, women and girls are only valued for being walking clothes hangers. Their only value to this industry is their usability to best show off clothing. At the party in the bathroom, leader of the pack Ruby offers an insight while applying lipstick in the mirror: Beauty products are often named after one of two things, “food or sex” she says while noting the color of a lipstick Gigi is applying as Red Rum, sometimes both. Ruby is offering Jesse a choice, is she food, to be consumed or does she consume others by sex. In a sense, Ruby is assessing Jesse as to whether she is prey or predator. Jesse is then asked if she sleeps with men. She feigns maturity and says she does although she is still a virgin. It’s a prelude to the film’s dark and horrendous third act.

Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model. Cameron Russell at TED Talks.

The next morning, Jesse meets with big-time modeling agent Roberta Hoffmann played by Christina Hendricks. She reviews Jesse’s previous pictures taken by Dean noting the rudimentary quality of the photos but still sees talent in the young Jesse. She asks how old she is and Jessie replies, “sixteen“. She instructs her to never reveal this telling her to inform potential clients that she is nineteen to skirt any issues regarding age. Jesse also discloses that she hasn’t graduated high school yet either. Roberta arranges a photo test shoot to get appropriate Glossy’s done to help jumpstart her career with a well known fashion photographer. Roberta hands her a parental consent form which Jesse mulls over in her hotel room before forging a signature on it.

Later that evening, Jesse goes out on a date with Dean where she informs him that she’s signed with Roberta’s agency. She notes that she has no particular creative talents nor abilities other than being pretty. Dean responds to her by saying she does demonstrating his cognitive/confirmation bias of the Halo Effect, something rampant in today’s culture of pervasive narcissism. Especially in Los Angeles and the film industry. He assigns characteristics to Jesse which she doesn’t have but he gives her solely based upon her attractiveness. A small tidbit also showing the viewer what the filmmaker may also believe about life in general or how he wants it to be.

Jesse returns to her hotel after her date with Dean and makes a startling discovery in her hotel room. A mountain lion has broken into the room and destroyed it. She summons the slick and shifty manager Hank played by Keanu Reeves along with his companion to clear the cougar out. He becomes angry with her for leaving the sliding glass door open and tells her she’ll have to pay for the damages.

The next day Jesse is on a Go See/Casting Call with a designer. Sarah is also there trying to get a job. The designer completely ignores Sarah but is enthralled by fresh-faced Jesse and casts her. Sarah visibly distraught by the designer’s choice and lack of attention flees to the bathroom. There she goes into a rage shattering the mirror. Mirrors and reflections of the women and Jesse are shown throughout the film. Jesse appears in the bathroom and haphazardly tries to comfort her. The film abruptly changes to horror after Jesse cuts herself on a shard of glass. Sarah grabs her hand and begins sucking the blood from it. Jesse screams, pulling away her hand in shock and runs out of the bathroom.

Picture Me: Youth

Sara Ziff Documents The Unseen Aspects Of Modeling. New York Magazine.

When she gets back to her hotel room, she goes through a series of hallucinations, one containing a glowing pyramid. Dean stops by and as she opens the door, Jesse faints. He cleans up her wound and goes down to discuss the damages in her room with Hank the hotel manager. Hank tells Dean if he’s into young girls, assuming that he is because he’s with Jesse often, that there’s a new thirteen year old runaway in the room adjacent to Jesse’s suggesting that if he wants a little action he should visit her too. Dean disgusted by the suggestion and by Hank pays him for the damages done by the mountain lion. Dean and Hank act as anchors in the story to the gritty reality of Los Angeles.

At the fashion show Jesse is cast in, she talks with Gigi who is also cast in the show too. She suggests that Jesse should be using sex to land jobs as she has done in the past and is amazed that she isn’t. It is then revealed to Jesse that is tactic is unnecessary because she will be closing the show; a spot often reserved for more experienced models and those who are moguls of the modeling world. Much to Gigi’s chagrin. After the show, Dean takes her out to a bar where the designer is with Gigi and another model from the show. The designer publically degrades Gigi by saying her beauty is fake because she’s had so much plastic surgery. He suggests to Dean further confirming his Halo Effect, that he never would’ve looked at Jesse if not for her natural, raw beauty. Dean challenges his understanding but Jesse is unimpressed and is now glowing in her new found narcissistic persona.

Later that evening while Jesse sleeps she is awoken by a nightmare and someone trying to break into her hotel room. She listens as the assailant breaks into the room beside hers with the thirteen year old runaway in it and assaults her. She calls Ruby and she invites her over. Ruby comes onto Jesse while staying with her but she recoils confessing that she’s still a virgin and has no interest in Ruby this way. Ruby leaves for her second job at the morgue where she has a necrophiliac scene with a dead female corpse. When she returns home from her job, she finds Jesse positively aglow with ego dressed in a fancy ball gown she found wearing it around Ruby’s home. While in the kitchen, Sarah and Gigi appear and try to attack Jesse with knives. They chase after her until she reaches Ruby’s empty swimming pool. Ruby appears in front of Jesse while her back is turned towards the empty swimming pool and pushes her in. She falls, breaking her legs while a pool of blood envelops her. In the next scene, Ruby is pictured in a bathtub full of dirt and blood while the camera pans over to Gigi and Sarah in a shower together washing Jesse’s blood off themselves. The next morning, Ruby is topless by the pool washing away the blood and watering the flowers. Her upper body is tattooed with Occult symbols and black angel wings across her sternum. Later she is pictured on top of Jesse’s shallow dirt grave smoking a cigarette, in the scene red roses envelop the landscape. It culminates with Ruby bathing naked in moonlight in her living room at night as blood gushes out of her groin.

The next day Sarah accompanies Gigi to a photo shoot where Sarah is and comments that she once ate a girl that “screwed her out of a job”, referring to Jesse. Gigi is visibly disturbed during the shoot. And the model shooting with Gigi is abruptly fired and replaced with Sarah. Gigi struggles on during the shoot feeling nauseous after staring into a swimming pool at her reflection. She runs inside the house where the shoot is and begins vomiting. Sarah finds her as she vomits up one of Jesse’s eyeballs. Gigi screams that she must get Jesse out of her and stabs herself with a pair of scissors in the abdominal region. Sarah consumes Jesse’s eyeball then returns to the set. The film ends with credits rolling of a young blonde woman in a desert.

The film overall is slow and deliberate, focusing mostly on cinematic artistry which Refn is notable for. The storyline is narrow and thin but it’s still a film of value for the aesthetic workmanship involved in it. The sets and settings are absolutely gorgeous along with the cinematography of the different characters and locations. If the viewer can keep their cookies down long enough to stomach the blood, guts and gore towards the end of the film, it’s worth a watch. The only thing ugly about the film is the story itself. But it’s supposed to be which is what makes it so brilliant. It’s billed as a horror-thriller film, so don’t be surprised if Refn is able to do exactly what he wanted to do with this film, elicit a reaction, good or bad from his audience.



1Quote. The Neon Demon (2016). Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn. Perf. Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks. Space Rocket Nation, Vendian Entertainment, Bold Films, 2016. Film, The Movie Network Canada.