The Neon Demon has been almost universally panned by critics. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 46% (64% for audiences), ranking even lower than X-Men: Apocalypse. During the Cannes Film Festival people stood up and booed and shouted at the screen. I had resolved to skip it, until I came across a positive review on YouTube (see below).
The themes of The Neon Demon are as diverse as the crazy plotlines. Some have called it a critique of the modeling industry, which though applicable, falls flat to me. It could be seen as a critique on the high standards for feminine beauty that lead women to plastic surgery and eating disorders. But the most obvious themes to me were 1) the cattiness in so many women’s relationships, and 2) the decadence of the modern world, where with no transcendent structures in place, people are guided solely by money and physical appearance.
Though called a horror film, anyone expecting a typical monster or slasher movie won’t find it here. The Neon Demon is a highly stylized art film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive and Valhalla Rising). Some scenes look like ones out of a Kenneth Anger film—if Anger had a bigger budget and did fashion shows. At times the film is slow-paced—like during a performance-art show set to strobe lights. The characters lack depth and some of the models are such caricatures that I couldn’t tell them apart. Even the two main characters—new model Jesse (Elle Fanning) and makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone)—don’t have much back story.
Yet the film works, mostly due to shock value and visual stunning. There are lots of lights, a plethora of glitter makeup, and the third act of the film is no doubt what shocked audiences at Cannes out of their seats in protest. Part of me disliked the decadence in the film; it was depressing. But, at least it was decadence done in visual high style, especially with the lighting, sets, use of mirrors, costumes and makeup (though it’s hardly high art).
The last part of the film is horrifying and stunning, and worth being surprised by. If you’re planning on going to see it, don’t read any further.
The Neon Demon: In Summary
First, I was surprised to see this was done by Amazon Studios. It’s the first Amazon movie I’ve seen.
The Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse, a 16-year-old Georgia girl who’s more beautiful than any of the established models, yet still comes off as sweet and unpretentious. Newly arrived to L.A., she’s hopes to make it as a model since she can’t sing, dance, or write–all she has is that she’s pretty. After a photo shoot with aspiring photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), makeup artist Ruby invites her to a party. We’re given clear signals that Jesse is a country-bumpkin: She wears a jean skirt to the nightclub and seems confused and out of place. It’s also established early on that the other models are completely rude. Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) glare at Jesse while saying how perfect she is.
Jesse meets with an agent (Christina Hendricks) and immediately gets signed by the modeling agency. She goes to a test photo shoot with a big-name photographer, wearing a thrift-store dress and Converse low tops. The photographer orders a closed set and tells Jesse to strip. She’s cowering in fear and it seems like he might rape her. But no—he just wants to smear gold paint all over her.
She goes on a date with Dean, only to return to her shady motel room in Pasadena and discover a mountain lion has gotten in and ransacked the room.
Then Jesse goes to a casting call for a fashion designer’s show. He’s enchanted by her but turns down Sarah. I didn’t realize it was even the same model from earlier, since they’re not well-established as characters except as women who hate Jesse. After being rejected Sarah smashes a bathroom mirror, asking Jesse how it feels to be the center of attention due to being so beautiful. “It’s everything,” she replies, the first sign that Jesse’s aware of the impact her looks have on people. Jesse accidentally cuts herself on a piece from the broken mirror. Sarah grabs her hand and starts drinking her blood before Jesse frees herself and runs home.
Jesse has to sneak into her motel room to avoid the manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves), who expects her to pay for the damages caused by the mountain lion. Dean comes over to surprise her with roses then gives Hank the money for the damages. Hank tells Dean he hopes he’s getting laid for his trouble. If not, he suggests Dean visit a 13-year-old runaway, a “Lolita,” staying in the room next door. Dean goes to the pharmacy and cleans up Jesse’s hand.
At the fashion show, the designer decides to make Jesse the star. Gigi, who’s also there, is obviously upset about Jesse’s popularity.
After the show, Jesse and Dean run into the designer and Gigi at a bar. Jesse’s traded in her hippie-dresses, sneakers, and makeup-free look for leather pants, a gold top cut down to her waist, high heels, and heavy make-up. The fashion designer points out how Gigi, who’s just had a lot of plastic surgery, pales in comparison to natural beauty Jesse. “True beauty is the highest currency we have,” he says. He adds that Jesse would be nothing without it, offending Jesse’s wannabe-boyfriend. Jesse turns down Dean’s suggestion to leave, looking self-satisfied with all the praise.
That night Jesse wakes up from a nightmare about Hank to find someone is trying to break into her room. Unsuccessful, she hears the door of the next room open and the screams of the 13-year-old. Rather than use the phone in her room or her smartphone to call the police, Jesse calls Ruby, who says she can come stay with her. Even the scenes in the dumpy motel room come off as beautiful.
Ruby is house-sitting a in a mansion overlooking L.A. that’s filled with antiques intermixed with stuffed wild animals—an owl, leopard, and wolf. Ruby puts on makeup then makes a pass at Jesse, who turns her down. Ruby tries to rape Jesse, who successfully throws her onto the floor. Ruby then makes a foreboding figure on a mirror in purple lipstick.
Ruby goes to her other job at a mortuary and locks herself in with a dead woman she’s applying makeup to. Pulling off her gloves, she gets off by kissing and fondling the dead woman every place you can imagine.
Jesse stays at the mansion, putting on glitter makeup and a gown and admiring herself in the mirror.
When Ruby gets back, Jesse is standing on the diving board of a drained swimming pool. She tells Ruby how her mother told her she was a dangerous girl. “She was right,” Jesse says. “I am dangerous. I know what I look like,” adding that other women carve themselves up with plastic surgery or starve themselves to death just to look like a second-rate version of her. Gone is the seemingly sweet girl we saw at the beginning of the film—Jesse has now transformed into a complete egomaniac.
When Jesse goes inside the house, Sarah and Gigi attack her. Eventually they surround her outside and Ruby pushes her into the empty swimming pool. Soon Jesse’s surrounded by a pool of her blood. Ruby takes a bloody bath and watches while the naked models shower off the blood together. (I assume this scene was included for the straight men in the audience, since this comes off as a movie geared toward women and gay men.)
The next day at a photo shoot, we find out from Sarah that they’ve eaten Jesse’s body. (I’m not sure why Ruby was shown smoking in a freshly dug grave was shown earlier; maybe for the skeleton.) During the shoot, Gigi runs off set clutching her stomach. She screams to Sarah, “I need to get her out of me!” before vomiting up an eyeball and stabbing herself to death with a pair of scissors. Sarah eats the thrown-up eyeball and the film is over.
The Neon Demon: Women Can Be Bitches and the Modern World is Decadent
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Neon Demon. I was engaged the entire time, but I don’t think that experience would translate as well to a home TV as in the theater.
The two bitchy models acted exactly the way shallow, catty women act—saying pleasant things while glaring at you. This is a phenomenon that women pick up on more than men. Men can think two women get along great, while another woman observing the scene would pick up on the hatred and sinister compliments. Maybe the film got it down because two women were involved in writing the script. A big theme of the film is how some women are self-serving, and some are even rapists and murderers. Even Salon can’t figure out what to make of it, writing the headline, “Is ‘The Neon Demon’ gruesome misogyny or brilliant feminist commentary? Can it be both?”
The decadence of the modern world is another theme of “the most twisted movie of the year.” No longer does society go to religious festivals—in L.A. it’s a dark performance-art event that seems to have no meaning. Same for the fashion show. Jesse no longer has a relationship with her parents—she forges a signature on the modeling agency’s consent form. She has no friends or community, since Ruby was only interested in only sex and the two other models were out to kill off any competition.
Although Jesse was about to call the police when the mountain lion was in her motel room, she makes no gesture to do so when a 13-year-old is probably being raped next door. Maybe it’s another symptom of how she was corrupted by L.A. and descended completely into the realm of the physical. That’s the same night she rejected Dean—who at least made some gestures of genuine concern to her—and turns instead to the feeling of power she gets when praised for her looks.
The Neon Demon depicts a world ruled completely by the physical plane (Malkuth)—money and physical appearances. There’s nothing symbolic about the film, or the world in which the characters live. All it results in is a brief flash of fame and fortune, mostly obtained by sleeping around, and ends in death or despair except for those who are completely closed off from anything transcendent as to enjoy mindless fame and consumption.
I don’t know what the “neon demon” is supposed to be in the film. Marketers are saying the film shows the dark underbelly of beauty. I think the demon is simply the modern world.
It’s disappointing that there doesn’t appear to be any deeper meaning to the light shows and stunning visual imagery—it would have been a great film for occult symbolism. The positive of that, as for any film, it that the lack of a definite message in The Neon Demon allows viewers to create their own interpretations.
* * *
This is the review of The Neon Demon that made me want to see it: