[Note: This post contains major spoilers. Updated 8/26/16]
A young woman comes to the Big City with dreams of breaking into stardom. Throughout her brief life, she’s been told she has “It”: a singular beauty, an uncommon talent, an aura that turns heads when she glides into a room. The gatekeepers to fame and fortune can also discern her extraordinary value. They tell her she is going places, and make endless promises about the glamorous future that lies before her. She gets her Big Break and, seemingly overnight, she is ushered into a rarefied realm far removed from that of her old life. Her new world has a gangrenous underside, however, and she is gradually corrupted and drained by the unforgiving system like a vampire’s bride. The exhilaration of ascension eventually turns to blind narcissism, and then to panicked cruelty as her trajectory—exploitation, diminishment, replacement—becomes hideously apparent.
It’s a timeless story, perhaps even a clichéd one. The cold-blooded commodification of beauty is such a well-established and exhaustively explored phenomenon that any new iteration of the tale needs to offer something truly distinctive, either aesthetically or thematically, in order to justify its existence. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest feature, the high fashion nightmare The Neon Demon, offers both. Visually and aurally, it’s an utterly fearless work: a lustrous acid trip spattered with indelible images of both unearthly loveliness and midnight-movie ghastliness. What truly makes Refn’s film so forceful and remarkable, however, is that its striking, often disconcerting imagery is utilized to portray a bent variation on a familiar babe-in-the-woods character arc, which is cast as an expression of a pervasive cultural virus. Critically, The Neon Demon is nothing as facile as a mere indictment of the fashion world’s superficiality—although some viewers will doubtlessly regard it as that and nothing more. It is, more meaningfully, a lament for the grotesque deformations inflicted on the human soul by the hunger for the unattainable.
The film’s opening credit sequence functions as an apéritif for the chilly, intense aesthetic that Refn maintains throughout. Bright text materializes and fades over a textured background of mutating fluorescent hues, while Cliff Martinez’ synth-drenched soundtrack layers melodic waves, ambient noise, and tinkling chimes over an urgent electronic beat. (One can immediately discern the ghost of Brian Eno’s late 1970s and early 80s studio albums, among other influences, in Martinez’ excellent score for the film.) As in Refn’s Drive, the exact year in which The Neon Demon unfolds is ambiguous, but from the outset, the film’s style often evokes the sights and sounds of a distinct mode of mass market West Coast 1980s chic. Here the walls are hung with Christopher Nagel prints, the hi-fi stereo blares synthpop and post-punk, and limitless cocaine fuels the late-night revelries. With mocking self-importance, Refn even emblazons the credits with his own retro designer label of sorts: a crest with the initials N.W.F.
The film then introduces Demon’s resident ingénue Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old who is freshly arrived in Los Angeles and painfully eager to make a name for herself in the modeling world. With her corn silk tresses, rosy porcelain skin, and vulnerable, almost boyish features, she doesn’t have the look of a typical runway denizen. It’s this novelty that seems to make her so beguiling to the industry figures she encounters, beginning with aspiring photographer Dean (Karl Glusman). Perhaps unwisely, Jesse has connected with him online and agreed to participate in a private photo shoot in order to build her portfolio.
Dean has Jesse made up like a candy-colored doll and then places her in a Grand Guignol tableau, sprawled on a couch with blood spilling from her slit throat. It’s exactly the sort of trite slasher-goth aesthetic that an “edgy” struggling artist might employ, and yet it still unsettles. Refn presents the shoot itself in Euro-artsy register—Jesse is visually confined and isolated by quadrilaterals, like a messily pinned insect in a shadow box—and accentuates the atmosphere of menace with shots of Dean prowling in the darkness, throwing hungry looks at his model. In truth, the sequence constitutes a bit of misdirection: Dean is later revealed as the most decent and forthright (perhaps guileless) person Jesse will encounter in Los Angeles, and he even initiates a chaste sort-of-relationship with her.
For Jesse, the more fateful meeting that occurs during the shoot is with Ruby (Jena Malone), a slinky makeup artist. This woman talks the friend-starved model into accompanying her to a late-night party, the sort of hip affair that includes video art installations and an acrobatic shibari performance piece. There Jesse is introduced to fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), lanky, cold-blooded blondes who haughtily enumerate their cosmetic surgeries as if they were achievements. In the ladies’ room, away from the deafening dream-pop and fuddling strobe lights, the pair’s veneer of cordiality vanishes the moment that Jesse fails to show them proper deference, and thereafter they dispose of her with a few caustic swipes. Gigi in particular slips in and out of Mean Girl mode with an unnerving ease, in a gauchely hostile echo of Charlotte’s more refined frenemy stance in The Last Days of Disco.
Ultimately, however, the nasty jabs of fellow models amount to so much anxious hot air, a measure of the threat that Jesse represents to the established pecking order of Los Angeles’ fashion world. Evincing unexpected self-awareness and mercenary pragmatism, she confesses to Dean during a date that she has no real talents, but “I’m pretty. I can make money off of pretty.” Indeed, the people who stand to profit off Jesse’s beauty, such as modeling agent Roberta (Christina Hendricks) and fashion photographer Jack (Demond Harrington), are unfailingly smitten with her effortless, unconventional look. Perhaps due to her youth, Jesse also radiates anxious vulnerability, which only heightens her attraction to disreputable industry elements. In a dreamlike sequence, the aforementioned Jack closes his set for a one-on-one shoot with the plainly petrified Jesse, slathering her nude body with metallic gold paint in a manner that betrays both clinical admiration and nauseating exploitation. (The visual evokes Auric Goldfinger’s gaudy execution methods, and by extension the misogyny-tinted disposability of the myriad Bond Girls.)
In no time at all, Jesse finds herself standing expectantly in front of a casting director and an esteemed designer (an uncredited Alessandro Nivola). Like all the models who have appeared for the audition, she wears only underwear and heels, but whereas the Designer can barely be bothered to glance at most of the women, Jesse’s entrance stops him cold. Refn and Nivola present this encounter absolutely straight, as a rapturous moment for a man steeped in world-weary decadence. Fanning might be unequivocally beautiful, but the filmmaker appreciates that in narrative fiction, mere assertions of greatness—e.g., she’s a genius writer, he’s an exquisite dancer, she’s one of the finest painters in the world—are not sufficient to convey a character’s superlative qualities. It’s Nivola’s splendid slow-motion reaction rather than Fanning’s looks that persuade the viewer that Jesse has “It”. The director stages the scene as though it were a religious experience for the Designer. Like Saul, the scales fall from his eyes as he at least beholds true beauty. (The unspoken, discomfiting subtext is, naturally, that Jesse’s new life can only truly begin when a powerful man acknowledges her appearance.)
Equally significant from a narrative perspective, however, is the reaction of Sarah, who is auditioning for the same show and immediately precedes Jesse in the lineup. Irrespective of the viewer’s distaste for Sarah, it’s hard not to feel twinges of sympathy when one witnesses the slow and total collapse of her confidence when the Designer won’t deign to even look at her. The sight of an au naturel newcomer like Jesse being singled out is too much for Sarah to bear. Jesse later discovers her in the restroom, sobbing before a shattered mirror, her portfolio torn and slashed to shreds. Good-hearted naïf that Jesse is, she tries to offer Sarah reassurance, but to the latter woman, this just feels like contemptuous pity. When Jesse’s palm is accidentally sliced on a mirror shard, the film offers the first unmistakable sign that something more rotten that mere heartless capitalism lurks beneath the surface of this world. Sarah seizes Jesse’s hand and attempts to lap up her blood, as though her rival’s priceless “It” were a molecule that could be consumed and absorbed.
Indeed, there are whispers throughout the film that something is askew, that the world has gone monstrously out of order. Most memorably, Jesse at one point returns to her fleabag extended-stay motel room to discover that an intruder is lurking within. Threatening to call the police, she convinces the abrasive, leering manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) to do something about this unwanted guest. When he and a baseball-bat-wielding crony (Charles Baker) investigate, however, the trespasser is revealed to be a mountain lion that has wandered down from the hills. This slightly surrealistic aside establishes a sensation of perversion and intrusion—the pitiless beast slipping undetected into the civilized world. The menace is only amplified by Refn’s facility at conveying both Los Angeles’ glitz and its seediness, and then allowing the resulting dissonance to grow, cancerously, into something overwhelming. This same approach is on display in Drive, but here the director escalates it to an almost baroque levels: The grime is much thicker and the gleam much more dazzling. Indeed, even the banal spaces of The Neon Demon’s L.A.—the strip mall diners, anonymous alleyways, and cash-only motels—exude a distressing sense of the uncanny, much like the locales of the thematically adjacent Mulholland Drive. In truth, nothing feels familiar in Jesse’s new world, and she seems perpetually menaced by her surroundings, even in the most mundane situations.
It is a professional coup for Jesse to have been chosen for the Designer’s latest show, but it is the event itself that proves to be a true turning point, the threshold that divides Middle American innocence from a new communion with something cold and unholy. Gigi is in the show as well, flabbergasted and affronted that Jesse has been given a place of honor in the finale, but the woman’s limp jibes betray the intimidation she plainly feels. Refn’s stylized portrayal of Jesse’s experience on the runway reveal the event as a transformative and profound one. The other models and even the spectators are lost in perfect darkness as radioactive hues of pink, red, and blue seemingly baptize Jesse in light. (Here and elsewhere, Refn’s film echoes Suspiria, the bright colors evoking something unearthly and sinister rather than wondrous.) She is eventually confronted with a neon shape hanging in the void, like a burning glyph written by a divine finger. A triangle divided into four sub-triangles, this mark does not seem to be a mere symbol, but the manifestation—perhaps even the perfectly symmetrical face—of some inhuman entity. The invisible metamorphosis to which it subjects Jesse is a monstrous one: the removal of her guileless, gentle nature and its replacement with callous narcissism. As if to seal this sacrament, Jesse kisses her own reflections within a prism-like structure that has enclosed around her.
The scene that immediately follows illustrates the abrupt shift in Jesse’s demeanor that is triggered by the triangle’s malefic fire. (It is also underlined by a change in Fanning’s body language, from tremulous elation to languid arrogance.) Jesse shows her crypto-boyfriend Dean in through the back door of a restaurant, where a post-show dinner is underway with the Designer, Gigi, and other models. There, the Designer reveals himself as the closest thing in the The Neon Demon to a Satanic figure, although he is truly more of a mouthpiece for the being from Jesse’s hallucinatory runway walk. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” he pronounces magisterially, clarifying—with barely concealed disdain for Gigi and the show’s other models—that Jesse’s unparalleled natural looks are the pearl of great price in this ethos. Such beauty cannot be attained, only bestowed by the luck of genetics. When poor Dean pushes back against this superficial worldview, Jesse icily tells him to leave if he’s so bothered by such harsh truths. The mise-en-scène in this passage is marvelous stuff: Dean and Jesse sit at separate tables, the former serving as a feeble barrier between the latter and the others characters. (Tellingly, he has to turn uncomfortably in his seat to address the Designer, exposing his back to Jesse’s verbal stabbing.) When Dean crumbles and flees, Jesse is free to slide across the gap and join her new tribe.
Later, a drunk and exhausted Jesse returns to the motel and has an excruciating nightmare in which Hank enters her room and forces her to perform fellatio on a folding pocket knife. (This disturbing dream is one of several warnings, unheeded by Jesse, of the violent threat posed by the frustrated envy and lust of others.) Upon awakening, she hears someone (possibly Hank) force his way into the adjacent room and apparently assault the young woman within. Knowing no one else she can turn to, she reaches out to Ruby, who is house-sitting at a mansion in the hills. The latter woman takes pity on Jesse and offers her the use of a spare bedroom. Tellingly, one shot reveals that this residence features a stuffed and mounted leopard, calling back to the invading panther and hinting that the mansion is a place of animalistic peril.
Indeed, the luxurious residence proves to be no sanctuary from the sexual aggressions of others. Ruby mistakenly assumes that her not-so-secret desire for Jesse is requited, and that her generosity entitles her to the young model’s affections. Vehemently rejected after attempting to force herself on Jesse, Ruby succumbs to a kind of enraged, self-loathing breakdown. During the course of her day job as a funeral home’s cosmetician, she pleasures herself with a female cadaver while fantasizing about her house guest. Jesse, meanwhile, having discovered that she is truly isolated and surrounded by grasping predators, withdraws even further into hard-hearted vanity. (She never dares to reach out to the spurned Dean, who, unbeknownst to Jesse, has paid Hank for the damages inflicted on her room by the mountain lion.) When Ruby finds her wandering by the mansion’s drained pool the following evening, Jesse espouses a matter-of-fact superiority: “I know what I look like. Women would give anything to look like me. But they never will.”
These words prove prescient, for it is at this point that The Neon Demon reveals itself as horror cinema not only in spirit, but in flesh and bone. Ruby, it seems, has invited Gigi and Sarah over to the mansion, and together the three women unleash a violent reckoning on Jesse for the sin of being beautiful and unattainable. Their assault culminates in Jesse’s fall into the empty pool, where she lies fatally broken, staring up at stars that seem to form the unholy triangle of her runway vision. Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah regard their dying victim coolly, watching her dark blood spread on the tile with hungry fascination.
The Neon Demon could very well have concluded with this tragic moment: the innocent unjustly murdered and her green-eyed nemeses triumphant. A dire ending, perhaps, but not one that feels especially rebellious in its depiction of human rapacity and spitefulness. Refn’s feature, however, achieves something far more discomfiting and transgressive by continuing to push the narrative forward. Instead of flickering out with Jesse’s life, the film rolls on, bearing witness as her murderers reap the rewards of their bloody deed—and learn its price.
In the aftermath of Jesse’s death, Gigi and Sarah shower blood and bits of flesh from their bare bodies while Ruby lazes motionless in a bathtub filled with gore, her pale face caked in scarlet. It’s a startling image that evokes numerous horror features (Carrie, The Descent, Trouble Every Day), as well as the baths of virginal blood in which real-world serial killer Elizabeth Báthory purportedly indulged, at least according to folk tradition. As this scene implies and later ones confirm, Ruby and her fellows have plunged beyond mere murder and defilement: They have embraced cannibalism as a means of absorbing Jesse’s youth, beauty, and vitality. The Neon Demon’s third act swerve thus reveals the film as a po-faced, Vanity Fair remix of Antonia Bird’s anthropophagical black comedy Ravenous.
For Ruby—the only member of the murderous trio motivated by romantic resentment—her abominable deeds have in a twisted sense secured Jesse’s eternal proximity, albeit at the possible cost of the makeup artist’s sanity. She is later observed masturbating on a moonlit floor as a distressing quantity of blood gushes from her vagina, and then later still lying placidly in what is apparently Jesse’s unmarked grave. In the case of Gigi and Sarah, the fallout from their actions is much more clearly expressed and far more horrific. While accompanying Gigi during a shoot at a stunning seaside house, Sarah catches the attention of the photographer, Jack—the same man who was once so enraptured by Jesse. Struck by Sarah’s looks, he asks her to substitute for another model. This appears to confirm the notion that the consumption of Jesse’s flesh has bestowed her killers with a portion of her youthful power. Sarah is pleased, and for a moment it seems as though the villains have emerged victorious, the boons of their crime at last emergent.
Then Gigi begins to cough and excuses herself from the photo shoot, to the consternation of the crew. Sarah searches the house for her and discovers Gigi huddled in a small room, gagging and retching. Seemingly hypnotized, Sarah can only watch impotently as Gigi vomits up a partially digested eyeball, its iris still a perfect icy blue. “I need to get her out of me,” Gigi wails, before suddenly and repeatedly stabbing herself in the abdomen with a pair of scissors and slumping over dead. (Partly concealed by designer sunglasses, Sarah’s reaction is almost completely blank, with the exception of a tiny twitch of disgust at the edge of her flawlessly painted lips, a detail that is deliciously performed by Lee.) After considering Gigi’s corpse for a beat, Sarah slowly crouches down, picks up the eyeball, and swallows it, wiping away a tear in the process. She then turns on her heel and returns to the shoot.
It’s a terrifically effective and brazen conclusion, and one in keeping with Refn’s aforementioned tactic of relentlessly pushing forward to observe all the awful consequences of Jesse’s murder. This approach creates a splendidly squirm-provoking pall of doom over the final minutes of The Neon Demon. Each shot and gesture signals what follows, with Refn allowing each terrible expectation to gurgle for a few sour moments before fulfilling it. (“She’s not going to pick up the eyeball, is she? Oh, God, she’s picking it up. Wait, she’s not going to…?”)
Beyond its potency as an almost cheekily sadistic horror sequence, however, the ending brings the film’s thematic ambitions into clear focus. While Refn refrains from painting Sarah, Gigi, and Ruby as overtly sympathetic characters, the film does elicit some sliver of sympathy for them. They might be murderous cannibals, but these women are also systematic victims, as are virtually all the women depicted in The Neon Demon. The muddling of deadly sins in the film’s psychological landscape—envy, pride, greed, lust, and gluttony—is significant. It directs the viewer to a broader and higher vantage point, from which one might gaze downward into the film’s earthly inferno and discern the ubiquitous handiwork of a malevolent power. Not Lucifer, in this instance, but want itself.
The abrupt, atypical end to Jesse’s star-is-born arc—inasmuch as she has an arc at all—might seems narratively perverse, but it’s as much necessary collateral damage as it is mischievous subversion on Refn’s part. Although Jesse is The Neon’s Demon’s primary protagonist and her initiation into the cult of commercial beauty is the backbone of the story, the bulk of the film’s emotional energy is directed towards her. To be sure, the viewer is witness to Jesse’s terror, ecstasy, and vanity as she is introduced and acclimated to the modeling world’s twisted norms. Yet the film regards her less as a tragic heroine than as a vehicle for the impressionistic portrayal of a profane emotional process. Namely, a woman’s indoctrination into a misogynistic system of commercialized desire.
Tellingly, almost every other character in the film wants something from Jesse: professionals like the agent, photographer, and Designer see a means to wealth and fame; Dean yearns for the romance and constancy of a girlfriend; Ruby daydreams of passionate sex; Hank wants cash and a fearful “Lolita” he can abuse; and Sarah and Gigi hunger to devour Jesse’s beauty and claim it as their own. The film’s air is thick with heedless, almost manic longing. The Neon Demon highlights the commonalities that run through these various desires, appealing to the viewer’s empathy, at least with respect to its women characters. Humanity, Refn advances, is snared in a fractal of repeating and endlessly fragmenting wants, a triangle subdivided down to the quantum level. Even a cannibal and would-be rapist like Ruby ultimately longs for something quite human—the physical affection of a Special Someone. Like most Americans, she has been tragically encultured to believe that everyone is guaranteed such intimacy.
There is no need for Refn to hammer the point with depictions of the downstream reaches of the fashion industry and all its allied sectors—cosmetics, weight loss, plastic surgery, marketing, and countless others. He trusts that the viewer will hear the fortunes sloshing when he presents a limitless cavalcade of indistinguishable women in their underwear, shuffling and trotting like so many thoroughbreds before the eyes of an influential man. From a rejected model sobbing in a ladies room, one can trace a dotted line through the oligarchic avarice of the owners, designers, and taste-makers, back to the burning itch of want created by a fashion magazine ad. Even the violence-backed sexual cravings of Ruby and Hank resonate with and personify this system, their stomach-turning specificity the mirror image of the impersonal exploitation of the capital-fueled fashion world. (The unseen Lolita in the room next to Jesse’s is another collateral victim, embodying the limitless female dreamers and runaways who never wriggle free from the first sleazy abuser they encounter when they step off the westbound bus.)
One needn’t be a Marxist theorist to observe how this global scheme of monetized want distorts and mutates society, forming a vortex of emotional and physical agony as individuals hand over their dollars in a never-ending search for the unattainable. Mature acceptance of the reality of the human experience—that one can’t always get what one wants, whether beauty, success, wealth, sex, or love—would slow the wheel's turn. Relief from the itch of need can therefore never be permitted to last too long. The Neon Demon bears witness to the direct effects of this cycle on women like Jesse and Sarah, while also echoing it in the dehumanizing revolving door dynamic in which models are used and then replaced like some endlessly renewable resource.
With The Neon Demon, Refn extends the principals of this rotten system to its reductio ad absurdum conclusion. The film’s final scenes portray the deranged behavior that would be permitted—nay, mandated—were all other concerns sublimated to the need to be the youngest, prettiest, thinnest, and most desired. This, ultimately, is why the aura of grisly inevitability that clings to the film’s conclusion is so overpowering. Deep down, one knows intuitively that it isn’t madness for Sarah to pop that regurgitated eyeball in her mouth and swallow, no matter how physically repugnant it might seem. It’s what she has to do in order to attain everything that she wants and to be everything that the world wants. If those are the stakes, is it really a choice at all?