The Neon Demon



Welcome, y’all! On my first blog post, I thought I’d go super modern and talk about something very new. And if you’re like me and have seen this movie, you just really need to talk about it to get it out of your head. This week I’m going over The Neon Demon [2016], directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Holy cats, this movie. I’m still reeling and have no idea how to hold it. Did I hate it? Am I ashamed to admit I loved it? Yes and yes. I did myself no favors by reading every review I could find before going to see this thing. You can’t watch the trailers and not get a little giddy. I got drunk on the gorgeous writing in some reviews, promising a gem-soaked blood nightmare set to a nocturnal predator LA scene. It does and it does not deliver on those promises.

What it does right

Refn’s influences are on grand display here. The film was shot by an international production crew, and the difference is clear. It’s a heavy dose of Italian horror gloss and bizarro ways. Sublimely framed and shot, every scene is saturated and dripping in color and texture. It’s glitter-soaked and seizure-inducing, and pauses often for longer than you think a movie could. The score is intriguing, like a futuristic space odyssey shot in the 1970’s. It pulses and pings in and out, and I wanted more of it than we are given (erm, until Sia comes in loud and wallowing in the ending credits, not sure why that happened).

It switches into crazy-town-mode without blinking and really holds the door in those scenes. You will see every detail and there will be no relief. I appreciate guts when it comes to horror – hold the shot. I’m seeing a horror movie, draw the horror out and make it mean something other than gore.

What it does wrong

If we consider two of Refn’s other films, Drive (a more subdued and intoxicating sun-bleached thriller based on a novel) and Only God Forgives (an unending assault on all senses stuffed with western privilege and gory to the point of silliness) as two opposites on the Refn scale, I’d say The Neon Demon lands squarely in the middle. I read this movie like a surrealist horror piece, which is the film’s biggest problem. The biggest tragedy here is that everything is in place for a mind-melting film that is both over the top and also restrained. What’s missing to make that happen is good writing. The screenplay was written by two playwrights (women, I’d like to note, for further discussion in a sec), but it’s like Refn was given a completely blank slate. He was given the characters, the scene, and over-arching story, and was left trying fill in the spaces between big moments with wet oil paint and nonsense.

The biggest question tumbling around in my head is this: is this is gurlesque-style feminist piece, or is a misogynistic romp? Can it be both? I don’t mind that a man made this. I don’t mind that he is taking a steaming dump on the fashion industry, notably corrupt and dangerous for young girls. I don’t even think he is commenting on women as a whole here. If Refn has sinned against women, it’s not that he’s created something where the women look like dead bodies and also sex dolls and also pre-pubescent perv-dreams for the leering men in every scene (which he did do). Refn’s sin is that he created a protagonist who was never meant to navigate these dangers. Jesse isn’t a real character; the only thing we ever feel for Jesse is fear. She will come to harm and we will be made to watch. Refn’s sin is that he has made a movie for himself about women, which is not very feminist, brah.


Opening scenes

I found the opening scene super weird. Jesse is being photographed in a semi-professional way, and her makeup for the shoot is a huge bloody gash across her neck, fake blood trailing down her chest, neck and back, and a crown of golden hair on top of her head. Jesse and the makeup artist, Ruby, do that thing where you look in the mirror and talk to someone in the mirror. One of the faults of this movie: assuming we want to see women staring at themselves in the mirror. There are so, many, mirrors, in this movie.

You’re gonna hear me ROOAARR

Jesse stays at a seedy motel for most of the movie. She comes back from a date night to an intruder in her room. The was one of the best scenes, by far: LA dusk-light is silent, a close-up of how hard it is to get that door open, then an amorphous dark shape moving like liquid throughout the room. This is the only time in the entire movie where Jesse shows fear and we are so scared for her. We know she has no family, and now the safe space she rented for herself has been taken. She has to rely on terrifying Keanu-Reeves-as-Hank to clear out her room. Here we get a hint that he also has trouble getting that door open. The intruder is an effing mountain lion. Like seriously, how did it get in there?! That is only partially answered later, hinting that Jesse left her sliding door open, allowing the predator to get inside.


Creeptacular Hank and his spank bank

Oh my God, this scene. Dean goes to pay Hank back for the effing mountain lion’s damage to the room. In one of the most disturbing moments in the film, Hank describes Jesse as “Hard Candy.” While we are recovering from how pervtastic he is, he then drops something worse: he describes Jesse’s 13 year-old runaway neighbor as “some real Lolita shit.” We are then left imagining that every one of those 50 rooms could be a rented safe space for a runaway, or wannabe runway model. How many young girls are in those dark rooms with palm leaf wallpaper and lots and lots of mirrors? Call me paranoid, but I’ve seen Psycho, so, you know.

That other hotel scene

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the most terrifying sequence in the entire film. After very quickly (I would say even sloppily) flipping her moral switch, Jesse falls asleep, and has a premonition of the violence that is coming for her. Hank enters her room through the door (with ease), and sticks the blade of a knife in her mouth and down her throat. It’s obvious what this is supposed to mean. Men prey on young girls, and Jesse didn’t secure her door. Thank Christ, it’s a dream, and the movie totally glosses over the fact that Jesse wakes up from this facedown on the floor. I read this as self-blame/self-shame here; Jesse blames herself for not keeping the predators out. And as she comes to this realization, Hank comes to her door. Everything in me clenched while she ran to the door to double-lock it, and then backed against the bed. He stops banging on the door, and then he goes to her 13-year old neighbor’s door.

Jesse’s makeup glops down her face, her curls still pristine and unearthly as she presses her ear to the wall and listens to her neighbor being raped and murdered. A literary reference happens here – the viewer is sunk behind that wallpaper and we see the shadow of Jesse pressed against the wall. She doesn’t call the police, she doesn’t try to help the girl, she just listens to the entire thing. So why reference The Yellow Wallpaper here? In it, a woman is held hostage in her own home, and descends into madness from lack of stimulation and the abuse from her husband. So is the point that Jesse could leave any time and be whatever she wants to be? Considering that she runs straight into the molesting arms of Ruby, I have no idea what to make of this.


And speaking of Ruby’s molesting arms

I read a review that incorrectly labels the bedroom scene with Jesse and Ruby as “aggressive lesbian seduction.” I have no words for that lie, or notes for this scene, but needed to point out that that scene is not aggressive seduction, it is sexual assault.

And speaking even more of Ruby’s molesting arms

Let’s talk necrophilia! Was this not the longest scene in the entire movie? I think it was like 3 minutes long. I know Refn intends only for his audience to react to this film, just react, doesn’t matter which way it goes. The ludicrousy of this scene had me in laughter and tears. It’s more gross than anything else we see, and it seemed to only serve to prove to us that Ruby is a lunatic, which didn’t need to be done. Which tells me that it was also an excuse to use the lens of models as dead bodies / dead bodies as models / all bodies as sex objects. Hey, Refn, what do you think of women?


What else are you gonna do with an empty pool?

Right, the pool scene. My problem with the waning and waxing surrealist nature of this film is that it never works when it’s supposed to. Why does Jesse get all made up, douse one of her eyes in glitter, put on a goddess-style dress, and then go stand on the end of a diving board over an empty pool? I can be all-for surrealist crazy-town if it makes sense. But Jesse had no reason to do that. Why would she do that? She becomes the most subdued we see her in the entire film, talking about her beauty as the LA skyline grows gradually darker, and all of the lines around our characters get a little fuzzier.

When Sarah and Gigi show up (in their model-dressed best!) to murder them some Jesse, I felt a little bouncy. Finally! Things were going to get crazy. I loved the chase scene, the hallway with its billowy curtains hinting at open air and freedom, and also the dangers behind them, and the red throbbing lights. I love the manner in which Jesse is murdered, and the fuzzy shot of her assailants approaching her body in the pool. All of that made sense. (you see how this works?)

Penultimate cannibalism and the obvious pun

After Jesse is killed, we are “treated” to the girls enjoying a Countess Bathory-style blood bath, bathing in the beauty of the virgin who threatened their world. I’m going to ignore my irritation for this trope being used again. I actually think a much more effective use of this scene would be a less techno-thumping semi-pornographic view of Ruby perv-watching the models shower off the blood while she herself is lacquered in it. What could have been used here would be a shot of the girls cleaning themselves off, and evaluating if they notice a difference in their own beauty. If you could pull off a shot like that, I’d be impressed.

And then Refn just keeps on filming. It doesn’t end. My boyfriend mentioned that the movie should have ended after Sarah says “I ate her.” That could work. It’s not that I don’t love the horror in those last few minutes, believe me I do, I so do. But it doesn’t belong in this movie. It once again doesn’t make any sense when Gigi stabs herself.

The eyeball. Gigi pukes up one of Jesse’s eyes, oh I dunno, maybe the one she doused in glitter? I loved the deadpan expression on Sarah, slowly taking off her sunglasses, leaning down to the scene before her, picking up the eyeball and with gentle tears dripping off her face, eating it. I laughed because it was ridiculous. I groaned equally as loud at what Refn is saying here, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ugggggh. It’s a final middle finger to the viewers.




I said it before: Jesse is not a real character. Still supremely acted by Fanning, she twitches and is afraid to make a lot of eye contact. She’s the epitome of innocence surrounded by chain-smoking, impossibly thin models. I honestly don’t have much to say about her. Her transition to the dark side (or we could even say, knowing her worth, God-forbid) is too quick, like a switch flipping. The big runway show she walks is a letdown. Its only redeeming factor was the differences in makeup. Gigi and the other models all look like they’ve been running for their lives for a few hours, while Jesse’s makeup is pretty perfect. The moon as an eye doesn’t work, and makes what follows with her actual eye a confused message.


Dear God, Keanu Reeves. Horrifying, am I right? Every scene with Hank is tense. Hank is the motel and the motel is Hank. We feel like he is behind every scrap of that hideous wallpaper, behind every mirror, and every shot of a closed door fills us with dread. Those are obviously his hands reaching out of the wallpaper towards Jesse’s body. Hank stepping outside for a smoke makes us uncomfortable. Even when he is locked inside of the green screen door, we hear his voice clearly. There is no escaping him at the motel.


Ruby sets off alarm bells from the first scene she is in. Her intentions are made clear as she pulls Jesse from one dark green-lit hall into the next. I was devastated that the film didn’t explore her part-time job more thoroughly. Jesse paints up both live and dead bodies! How fascinating is that? Also fascinating is Ruby lying in the shallow grave, I’m assuming with Jesse. She seems to be having a conversation with her. I am thrilled that we didn’t hear that conversation – that is an example of restraint that the rest of the movie misses.


I was unimpressed by Gigi’s character. She’s got the obvious “bionic woman” thing going on, but that’s all that’s happening. Again, the acting here is great. Heathcote plays the character as best she can. She reeks of insecurity and seems to be constantly uncomfortable in every scene, and overcompensates by speaking over everyone else. Gigi’s convulsing in cornrowed blonde hair in that penultimate scene was great; she twists her face into something inhuman and gross.


I found Kershaw as Sarah completely fascinating. Refn is relying heavily on the acting in this movie. Kershaw uses micro-movements in her face – much like a model does – to convey her impulses and fears. Her pauses are mesmerizing, and she is wildly unpredictable. The bathroom scene of her smoking rings clear in my head. She says “I’m a ghost,” then pauses, exhales a stream of smoke as if reiterating her point. Her dive at Jesse is hinted only in her eyebrows. MWAH. I wanted more.


Final thoughts

After all of this analysis, I still don’t know how I feel about this movie. If there had been any hint that these girls had murdered and eaten someone before, I might be feeling less untethered. We get a whisper that this may have happened when Sarah drinks Jesse’s blood in the bathroom, but that isn’t certain. It would not have hurt this movie, that’s for sure.

I didn’t mind the pauses but minded the nothing that happens in between the pauses. This is not the bloody gemstone that was promised in reviews. If you read it like a horror film, it’s not that bloody. If you read it like a drama/thriller, you’re going to be cranky once the credits roll. If you like an art-house vibe to your horror, and don’t mind spinning in confusion during and after a film, I would tentatively recommend this? Maybe?


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