I Watched The Neon Demon So You Don't Have To

Posted on Friday, November 4, 2016 by

The Neon Demon review

This summer, I went to my first solo movie and it totally changed my outlook on all solo outings. Going to a movie by myself was so great because I didn’t have to share my popcorn, I got to sit where I wanted, and I didn’t have to fuss around someone else’s schedule. Best of all, I got to see a flick in theaters that I may have missed because my boyfriend wasn’t into seeing it. It’s unfortunate that the film I caught was underwhelming.

I was so excited about The Neon Demon when I saw the trailer. I love Elle Fanning. I love Jena Malone. It looked like Suspiria with glitter which is exactly what my dreams are made of. Writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for Drive, a highly rated and beautifully shot crime thriller starring our favorite punk rock eye candy, Ryan Gosling. Apparently Refn wasn’t sick of the pink and blue lights and decided to embark on another thriller journey. 

The Neon Demon review

The film opens with a beautiful still image of Jesse (Elle Fanning) soaked in blood and covered in cosmetic crystals, followed by bright flashes of light from the photographer on what we learn is a photography set. This is the first of many neon, picturesque shots. Visually, The Neon Demon looks like Sophia Coppolla and Dario Argento had a love child. The cinematography is probably the most consistent part of the entire film. When cleaning off her blood, Jesse meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who compliments her skin before taking her out to a party. Ruby’s friends join the ladies in the bathroom where they have a really gross conversation beginning with lipstick shades. “They say women are more likely to buy lipstick if it’s named after food or sex.” Ruby asks Jesse “are you food, or are you sex?” Then, the ladies drill Jesse about her body, her dead parents, and “who she’s fucking.” This conversation isn’t a parody of how vanity obsessed women speak to each other. It’s clear that Refn wrote the dialogue based on the age old misogynistic idea that women inherently hate other women and consider them competition. The party ends with a performance art piece with an uncomfortable, anxiety inducing light show reminiscent of a scene from a Gaspar Noe film.



The Neon Demon reviewCut to Christina Hendricks playing a modeling agent, giving Jesse advice on the industry. “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat,” she tells her, “but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t.” The agent tells Jesse that she sent her polaroids to an influential photographer, Jack something, and that he invited her to do a test shoot. We learn Jesse is a minor when the agent instructs Jesse to tell people she's 19. Jesse returns to her motel room and fakes a signature on the agency’s parental consent form. Jesse’s motel room is a cheap, tacky, Palm Springs dream. Pink and green hues fill the room. I’m seriously saving that to my home decor Pinterest board. The photographer from the beginning of the film picks Jesse up for a drive around LA. Jesse’s dialogue in this scene is very thoughtful and sweet. She talks about not knowing who she would be as an adult and not thinking that she has real talent. “But I’m pretty,” she say, “and I can make money off of pretty.” This scene gives Jesse the only depth we see in her in the entire film. The photographer tells her that she’s probably good at a lot of things. Jesse is being set up as the broken, baby, damsel in distress, all alone in LA. Jesse tells the photographer that she is just barely sixteen, and we can see that he’s uncomfortable, but still tries to kiss Jesse as she leaves his car. This is the first time we really see the oncoming fetishization of a minor, a theme that continues for the remainder of the film.

Jesse returns to her motel room and sees something in the dark. She runs downstairs to tell the manager who assumes she’s high. When she threatens to call the police, an angry Keanu Reeves (what?) decides to investigate. Jesse’s room is a disaster and angry Keanu Reeves threatens her, telling her that kids are all the same and that he’ll find her. (I’m pretty sure he knows where she is, though, seeing that, you know, she’s staying in his motel and all.) They discover the intruder is a big cat. I don’t know if it was a cougar or a jaguar or whatever because a) I don’t know the difference between big cats and b) I don’t know what kinds of big cats are in California. Send help. 

The Neon Demon review
We find our lead entering a photo set and catching eyes with Ruby, the makeup artist from the beginning of the film. Ruby legitimately looks like a makeup artist. Her look is dark, but subtle and clean. She reminds me of some of the artists I worked with in my makeup artistry days. Ruby is kind to Jesse and we see that she has taken on somewhat of a mentorship role. After completing her makeup (a gold foil dream), Ruby leads Jesse to Jack, the important photographer, who thoroughly examines her before instructing all of the crew to leave the set. Ruby offers to stay, as if she’s concerned for Jesse, but Jack tells her to leave. Jack demands that Jesse remove her clothes. As a viewer, this made me extremely uncomfortable. I understand this was Refn’s point but it didn’t make it feel any less violating or disgusting. Jack then uses his hands to coat Jesse's entire body in gold paint as the score turns into a droning synth dream. Something that was supposed to incite discomfort then turned into a redeeming photo shoot. This didn’t sit well with me. Jesse leaves the set to find Ruby waiting for her. Jesse tells Ruby that the photo shoot went well, and Ruby tells her that “he makes a lot of promises to young girls,” and that she doesn’t think Jesse should be alone with him. She exchanges phone numbers with Jesse and says “it’s good to have good girls around.” I guess Ruby is supposed to be the “good girl” out of the group of models who previously surrounded her. Ruby is also the only girl who isn’t blonde. It’s like we’ve gone all the way back to slashers of the 1970s and 80s. 

The Neon Demon review

Ruby meets the models at a diner. A waitress asks if the ladies would like to hear the specials. One of them agrees, and the other mentions that she won’t eat them anyway. I don’t remember their names or if we even know them, so I’ll refer to them as the mean model and the meaner model. The mean model responds “but they’ve worked so hard to memorize them.” It’s no surprise that the models are portrayed as vacuous, although in 2016, we should be expecting more from our horror writers. The models ask Ruby about the shoot and she tells them Jesse was there - a recipe for disaster. The mean model replies that Jack shoots her all the time, and the meaner model tells her that it won’t last. “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?” Ruby says that Jesse is special, that she has something that other girls don’t have. We then see Jesse at an audition with the meaner model. The meaner model is wearing a bra that I am about 80% sure if from For Love and Lemons and I want it. Here is where I discovered that the model’s name is Sarah. (Great!) Sarah completes her runway walk and the attending designer pays no attention to her. An assistant calls Jesse’s name and the designer asks her about her experience. He is clearly smitten with her. Jesse completes her walk and gets a part in the show. Sarah walks to the bathroom and loses her shit. She throws a trash can at the mirror and Jesse walks in to see Sarah’s portfolio destroyed. Jesse tries to console Sarah and Sarah gives a long speech about Jesse’s beauty and its impact on people around her. Sarah asks her how it feels, and Jesse responds “it’s everything.” We’re seeing a change in Jesse. The sweet Georgia orphan is slowly adopting the characteristics of her model peers. Sarah lunges towards Jesse and Jesse cuts her hand on broken glass. Sarah asks to see the wound, and drinks up the blood from her palm. This left me guessing whether the models were vampires or interested in consuming blood for everlasting youth like my favorite lady serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory.

The Neon Demon review

Ruby enters a morgue to apply makeup to a corpse. As a macabre loving makeup artist, this was always a dream of mine. Seriously jealous of Ruby’s entire life so far. Jesse returns to her motel room quickly to avoid angry Keanu Reeves. She cleans her injured hand in the sink and answers the door to the love interest photographer before collapsing with a bouquet of flowers. I cannot get enough of how beautiful this film is. It’s seriously the only thing it has going for it. Jesse is shown with the fallen bouquet in the center of the shot. Her pink skin is so bright against the burgundy carpet. It’s really stunning. This is also a good time to mention that 100% of the characters are white. For a portrayal of the fashion scene in LA, I guess it makes sense.  The industry is predominately white and that’s no secret. Like I previously mentioned, though, it’s 2016 and having a cast that is completely white is really unacceptable. It’s nothing new for horror flicks, but it’s still disheartening and I have to call it out. After Jesse faints, the screen cuts to black and we see a series of geographic shapes in various neon colors, followed by her motel room wall with hands pushing out. A sight I can only imagine was stolen from Nightmare on Elm Street, and that we’ve seen used again and again in the genre. This is the only time this happens, though, and we have no insight into where this hallucination came from.

The Neon Demon reviewJesse wakes up and hugs her photographer boyfriend. He walks down to angry Keanu Reeves’ office and this is where things get really gross. Photographer boyfriend tries to talk to angry Keanu Reeves about the money Jesse owes him for the big cat situation, and angry Keanu Reeves goes on a rant about Jesse. “Oh, the wildcat? That’s some real hard candy. You know what I mean?” Photographer boyfriend is offended, and eventually pays angry Keanu Reeves $140 for the damages. Photographer boyfriend asks if there is a pharmacy nearby and angry Keanu Reeves replies “why? She send you out for tampons, too?” Angry Keanu Reeves tells photographer boyfriend that he wants to make sure he’s getting something out of the deal. “‘Cause if you’re not, got plenty of other girls here. Take a peek in room 214 if you get a chance. Rented it this week to a girl from Sandusky, Ohio. Runaway. Thirteen years old. Real lolita shit.” If I hadn’t already been 6000% over this film, this is what pushed me over the edge. At this point, we already understood that the motel manager was a creep. That was clear from the moment we met him in act one. Here Refn gives us a some sort of self realized fetishization of a sixteen year old girl. This isn’t a smart reflection over what can happen to young girls in LA, it’s just fucked up. Angry Keanu Reeves isn’t done yet though, “Real lolita shit,” he continues, “Room 214. Gotta be seen.” 

The Neon Demon review

Jesse is preparing for a runway show when the model who is not Sarah catches her, shocked that she’s in the same show. “You move fast,” not Sarah tells Jesse, “you must be fucking him.” Refn really drives this idea into the ground. After insulting Jesse’s appearance, not Sarah goes into detail about her cosmetic surgery, further ensuring the audience understands her body obsession. It’s not the first time her cosmetic surgery is approached with the idea that it’s overdone. It’s an outdated idea that altering your appearance with cosmetic surgery is something to be ashamed of. Many women (and men) have cosmetic surgery for a number of reasons, all of which are totally okay. “Nobody likes the way they look,” not Sarah tells Jesse. “I do,” Jesse replies. This is a weird grey area for Jesse. We’ve seen her attitude changing to be more like Sarah and not Sarah’s, but this moment of self assured confidence could lie in either side of her personality. These small moments happen often and make her character inconsistent. The designer decides Jesse will close the runway show. I don’t know much about the modeling world outside of my Kendall Jenner obsession or the many cycles of America’s Next Top Model I’ve binge watched on Netflix, but I know that closing a runway show is a big deal. The designer dresses Jesse in a beautiful floor length black gown with long sleeves, a mock neck, and gold beaded detailing throughout. It’s seriously one of the most beautiful gowns I’ve ever seen. I would wear it to my wedding. At the end of the show, we see the same triangle motif from Jesse’s fainting hallucination before. It looks like an inverted, neon blue, Legend of Zelda triforce. Jesse sees herself in front of the symbol before cutting to her face enveloped in red lights and mirrors in center screen. Jesse looks edgier than ever and kisses her reflection on either side of her. The triangles turn red, as if to symbolize the complete shift in Jesse. 

The Neon Demon reviewJesse walks into a club with photographer boyfriend. Jesse has teased hair and a very low kit gold top on. Imagine Beyonce’s “Six Inch Heels” playing as she walks in. Inside the club, not Sarah, and some of the other models are eating and drinking champaign, while the designer recites lines from something I feel like we’re supposed to know, but I didn’t. Here I can see where Refn is making fun of this bougie designer. The designer is talking about how creating many different things are all the same when you’re an artist. Maybe Refn isn’t mocking him at all, though. Maybe this asshole is supposed to be Refn. At this point in the film, who fucking knows? After, there’s another dig at not Sarah’s plastic surgery. The designer says that “you can always tell when beauty is manufactured, and if you aren’t born beautiful, you never will be.” Apparently not Sarah’s name is Gigi. The designer is comparing Gigi to Jesse, because we maybe missed that all women are competing with each other? “True beauty is the highest currency we have, without it, she would be nothing.” Photographer boyfriend, whose name I just realized is Dean (are names even important in this film?), defends Jesse and leaves. Dean is waiting for Jesse at the motel when she returns. He asks “what are you?” Jesse tells him “I don’t want to be them. They want to be me.” Pretty hurts. 

The Neon Demon reviewAngry Keanu Reeves breaks into Jesse’s motel room while she’s sleeping. He slips a knife inside her mouth and down her throat, and instructs her to open her mouth wider as she metaphorically deep throats him. Jesse wakes up on the floor, as if from a dream. Her doorknob shakes erratically and she frantically races to lock the door. Next door, room 214 (remember what angry Keanu said?), the girl screams and struggles as Jesse listens through the wall. Jesse calls Ruby who invites her to come stay at her house. While Jesse showers, Ruby reapplies her makeup and pretends to kiss the mirror. She enters Jesse’s room with a toothbrush and a pretty nightgown. Jesse tells Ruby that her house is amazing, and Ruby tells Jesse that she doesn’t live there. “You said this was your house,” Jesse says, and after a long pause Ruby replies, “no, I said I was housesitting.” Jesse sits on the bed and Ruby brushes her hair. Jesse thanks Ruby for being kind to her and Ruby comes on to Jesse, complimenting her beautiful skin again. Jesse tells Ruby that she’s a virgin and Ruby climbs on top of her, telling her that she doesn’t care. Jesse tells Ruby to stop, “I don’t want to,” she says, slipping her hands inside Jesse’s nightgown, ” I want to be your first.” Jesse pushes Ruby off the bed and Ruby leaves. It was an interesting choice to show a girl on girl sexual assault, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. Ruby stares at herself in the mirror and draws Xs over her eyes with lipstick. In the sitting room of the house, a taxidermy big cat lingers in the background. I think this is supposed to circle back to the big cat in Jesse’s motel room, but it’s not the same type of big cat (I’ve gathered that much in my big cat knowledge) and there is no explanation for the symbolism, if you can even call it that. 

The Neon Demon review

Ruby leaves a robe for Jesse, and when Jesse rises, no one is home. At the morgue, Ruby drops her lipstick and brush (which normally would be so unsanitary but I guess if you’re dead, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re spreading diseases) and locks the door. Ruby removes her gloves and caresses the young, female corpse. She imagines the stitched up body is Jesse, as the scene cuts back and forth between Ruby and the corpse, and Jesse touching herself. Just as a reminder, this is supposed to be a sixteen year old girl who is squeezing her breasts and licking her fingers seductively. Ruby passionately kisses the corpse while rubbing her body, before climbing on top of her and masturbating. Back at the house, Jesse applies pink pigment on her eyelids and cheeks, and covers one side with gold glitter. The girl has obviously never touched cosmetic glitter before because using a blush brush for that would have seriously left glitter everywhere. Jesse sees a pale blue halter gown waiting for her and puts it on before walking out to the empty pool. 

The Neon Demon review

Ruby returns home to find Jesse standing alone on the diving board. Jesse asks Ruby, “do you know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous. ‘You’re a dangerous girl.’ She was right. I am dangerous. I know what I look like. What’s wrong with that anyway? Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, and praying that one say they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.” Jesse has fully shifted now, into the vain model that mirrors the ones we’ve previously met. Jesse walks back into the house and is attacked by Sarah and Gigi. Jesse and Gigi face off with knives in the kitchen where Sarah catches up with her. Like any survivor girl, Jesse stumbles and injures herself before facing off with her attackers, now including Ruby. Ruby pushes Jesse into the empty pool. Jesse is paralyzed and bleeding as Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah approach her. Blue lights highlight the glitter on Jesse’s cheek. Gigi and Sarah shower off Jesse’s blood in what I can only describe as a male gaze influenced lesbian porn scene. Ruby bathes in a claw foot tub full of blood. I was right about the Elizabeth Bathory approach, but there was no demon, after all. 

The Neon Demon reviewThe following morning, Ruby waters the plants topless and washes away the blood from the pool. She then lays in a hole she’s dug for Jesse’s body in what looks like a fairy tale pixie land. I don’t even know where that set came from. The scene closes with her in a dark room, legs spread, and blood rushing out of her vagina. I'm not clear on the symbolism of the birth/menstruation/whatever happened here. Gigi and Sarah drive off to a shoot. Gigi’s hair has been braided into these very long corn rows. Very Kylie Jenner. Very inappropriate for a white model. The other model on set asks Sarah if a girl had ever screwed her out of a job. Sarah replies, “I ate her.” Jack, the creepy photographer from earlier, sees Sarah waiting for Gigi and tells her he wants to use her for the shoot. Gigi gets violently ill on set and vomits up Jesse’s eyeball. Cute. Gigi tells Sarah “I need to get her out of me,” and stabs herself in the stomach with fabric shears. Sarah picks the eyeball up from the floor and swallows it as a tear sheds from her eye before credits roll. 

The Neon Demon left me with a lot of questions. Was there an actual demon somewhere, because I definitely missed that? What happened to Dean? What happened to the girl in 214? Was angry Keanu Reeves the one who broke into the girl in 214’s room? Was angry Keanu Reeves the one who was shaking Jesse’s door, because like, he had a key and could’ve just unlocked the door? I guess the world will never know, and that’s okay.


The Neon Demon review

The Neon Demon attempts to open a dialogue about the LA fashion industry but instead mocks the struggles that young women in the industry legitimately face. A male writer/director has no understanding of girlhood or womanhood and would’ve benefitted from consulting, you know, actual women. Jesse is supposed to be the Cady Heron (Mean Girls) of the group of female characters, but instead of finding some sort of redemption at the end, Regina, Gretchen, and Karen kill her and soak in her blood. Part of me wonders if The Neon Demon was marketed as a feminist film. I can’t even tell you how many screeners I receive that the directors and writers market as “feminist” because they have a fully stacked female cast. Having woman characters isn’t enough to make a statement about women in horror. (Kind of like how Bloody Disgusting allowed a male director to write about sexy female characters during Women in Horror Month?) 


All in all, The Neon Demon’s narrative falls flat. The characters lack substance, there are so many holes in the plot that it’s hard to follow, and the not so subtle pedophilia is disgusting. The pretty lights, Kubrick inspired symmetric shots, and almost good synth-y score weren’t enough to keep The Neon Demon afloat.