Orphaned as a child, sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) longs for a career as an LA fashion model while living on the bare-bones essentials at a seedy Pasadena motel. She does well at a handful of photoshoots, which leads to an unexpected offer from talent agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who is impressed with her beauty but convinces her to lie about her age in order to get more jobs.
Along the way, Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), her lesbian makeup artist, and begins seeing Dean (Karl Glusman), an old-school Southern boy who likes her, but dislikes the shallowness of the fashion industry. Jesse must also avoid the creepy manager of the motel, Hank (Keanu Reeves) and navigate photoshoots with the stern Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington) and the pretentious Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola).
Jesse’s fellow models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), attempt to understand what makes Jesse so special that she can score major gigs right off the bat. Intense jealousy and violence ensues, while Ruby, who has been much more open and kind with Jesse, reveals disturbing secrets of her own. In the end, they’re all sucked into the dark underbelly of the fashion industry with shocking results.
The Neon Demon is directed by acclaimed arthouse maestro Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve long been an admirer of the Danish director’s previous works, including Drive and Only God Forgives, both action-thrillers which starred Ryan Gosling.
Drive is one of my all-time favorite action films, featuring a relatable and sweet love story mixed with graphic mafia violence. I didn’t like Only God Forgives — an experimental revenge story set in Thailand — nearly as much, but it also featured a good performance from Gosling and exquisite cinematography.
Speaking of which, that’s what The Neon Demon‘s biggest strength is — cinematography. The visuals are outstanding and create the appropriate atmosphere that we’re used to seeing from Winding Refn. I also loved the film’s score by Cliff Martinez (a frequent collaborator of Winding Refn), and most of the acting was solid.
The Neon Demon is also good simply because it knows what it is: a psychological horror-thriller. It’s not a catty whine-fest featuring hot girls vs. other hot girls, and it’s also not a self-righteous commentary on the superficiality and vapidness of the fashion industry. Think more of Carrie mixed with a Calvin Klein advertisement.
Onto the negatives: the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they need to be, and the film lags at around the halfway point. There is some SERIOUS violence and sexual content in this film, and it will undoubtedly be disturbing to even some hardened viewers. The reason I can give these elements of the film a little bit of respect is because I know what Winding Refn was going for here. While some scenes veer dangerously close to exploitation film territory, overall, the graphic images are handled pretty well.
And to be fair, ever since the 70s, smart directors have known how to blend shocking, graphic violence and/or sexuality with enough artsiness to make it feel organic to the plot. Therefore, I didn’t find all of the content in The Neon Demon (or even most of it) to be 100% gratuitous — in the same way that (in my opinion) Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, and Bad Lieutenant weren’t automatically gratuitous.
Like Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon received polarizing reviews and got nearly equal boos and cheers when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. I had briefly heard of the film when it came out last year, but, to my knowledge, it didn’t get a wide screening in a lot of area theaters. Heck, I didn’t even know Winding Refn directed it until I saw it at my local rental store. The Neon Demon flopped at the box office, grossing $3 million on an already-small budget of $7 million, and received mixed reviews from most notable critics (57% on Rotten Tomatoes).
And that makes sense — The Neon Demon is the antithesis of a mainstream film, despite featuring a recognizable cast and a well-regarded director. It definitely meandered towards the end, but overall, this is another good — but not spectacular — entry in Winding Refn’s diverse filmography.
This honestly is a very hard film to recommend, because there are definite negatives in terms of actual plot, content, and characters. While it’s a bold film visually and stylistically and the technicals are outstanding (especially directing, cinematography, and sound), The Neon Demon still doesn’t succeed on the grand scale it intends to. It might become a cult classic someday on the indie circuit, but I can see why it failed among most major audiences. Judge as you will.
- Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
- Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham
- Produced by Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas and Vincent Maraval
- Director of Photography – Natasha Braier
- Music by Cliff Martinez
- Edited by Matthew Newman
- Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola
- Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.