Featuring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks and directed by Nicholas Winding Refn; The Neon Demon is a genre-defying film that is a visually stunning, nuanced, patient work of art designed to overwhelm the audience’s senses.
Jessie (Elle Fanning) is an LA newcomer hoping to break into the fashion industry. She doesn’t have the ability to sing, she can’t write, she’s not smart but she’s beautiful she tells Dean (Karl Glusman), the young photographer who gave her her first work. On her first shoot she meets Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who instantly expresses a desire for friendship. She takes Jessie to her first industry party and introduces her to established models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The models believe that Jessie is beautiful but naive when she scoffs at the concepts of plastic surgery or having sex with men to raise her position in the industry. Jessie feels ostracized but Ruby invites her to come watch a performance art piece. A few days later Jessie gets an interview at a top modeling agency. Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) signs her on sight promising that if she works hard she will soon be heading to New York and become a major model.
Jessie is drawn into the fashion industry quickly finding success but also running into problematic situations. She is 16 but her agent tells her to lie and say she’s 19. She’s sent on a test shoot with a major photographer (Desmond Harrington) who closes the set to shoot an artist nude editorial. The manager of the motel she lives in, Hank (Keanu Reeves), is a dangerous and sexually aggressive man. These things do not prevent her from pursuing her career but they definitely create obstacles and threaten her life.
The outside threats to Jessie’s career don’t just come from men. As she succeeds others question, wonder and suffer over her victories. In an industry as cutthroat and vicious as modeling the fragile egos and the fear of being forgotten can turn ‘beautiful people’ into something vile and ugly.
That said there is something interesting about Jessie herself. Often we are met with heroines in films that are told they are beautiful by other people. Those women are seen as more heroic or sympathetic characters if they deny their beauty whenever it is spoken of. Jessie does not do that. She moved to LA because she believes in herself and she’s not going to pretend to be shy or demure or unspectacular for anyone… Even to spare their feelings… Even if it makes them hate her.
To discuss this film without reaching into its major plot element is difficult but this is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It is gorgeous even when it is showing disgusting or disturbing imagery. It is artistic and it is visceral. Does the ending “make sense”? No, but once you’ve seen the film the ending kind of makes sense. Would I recommend it? That’s the difficult thing about it. I know people who should absolutely see this film. Specific people. This is not a film for everyone. Its going to challenge you. That said if you make it to the end you’ll find yourself watching a sequence you could not believe would be the the end result of the movie you started watching an hour or so before. The film is smart, beautiful and patient but be warned… It also has a gloriously disturbing ending with a voracious appetite for gore. Many people will hate this film but the ones who will love it will find themselves extremely satisfied.
- Mr. Khon