The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 


Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

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37 thoughts on “The Neon Demon

    • I tip my hat to you, sir. Thanks a lot and I hope you get a kick out of this, especially if you were able to wring out enjoyment from OGF! Good on you, on that one man. Though as I said to Adam below, I need to give that one another go to see if I just got caught up in the negative hype. Too easy to do with filmmakers like him and Von Trier, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You lucky bastard! 😛 I can’t wait to see this, somehow, and this has been even more pumped. I loved both his last two movies so I’ve been counting down the days to this!! Nice review mate


    • 😉 Haha always love beating a few of my fellow cinephiles to a title every once in a while! This whole thing is a competition man! And you, sir, are currently losing. No, I kid. I kid.

      Check this out when it comes your way though. I didn’t personally give one shit for Only God Forgives but i loved Drive (as did the whole world, seemingly). This I put just in between those two. The story here is pretty rote but acting and some serious moodiness elevate the whole thing

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha! My country loses, constantly 😛 This won’t screen here at all, no question. And they wonder why Aussies are the biggest pirates?! 😛

        Can’t wait to see it tho, really intrigued by this Refn dude. Gotta watch Drive again now that you mentioned it again


  2. I haven’t’ been going to the movies as much as I usually do. The offerings just haven’t been up to par this summer. However I do want to see this. The reviews haven’t been very good, but you were quite positive on it. Probably on DVD if I don’t make it to the theater in time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad someone else has felt it has been a bit subpar lately, bc that’s how I feel too. Although I did just get back from seeing The BFG, which I am hugely excited about (pretty much knew I would be). But yeah, Refn’s little deal here is pretty worthwhile too. In terms of general experience-quality, its defintiely between OGF and Drive, but hewing much closer to Drive in terms of how well you can get into it. I really liked it


  3. Refn is one of those few filmmakers who have such a unique visual style. Even if his films don’t always click on a narrative level, visually, they’re incredible. And this is made even more evident by the fact that his last three films have all been shot by different cinematographers, yet the visual style is so consistent.
    I cant wait to see this one, its been pretty divisive, but your review gives me hope. Nice review man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dude, an excellent point about him using all different cinematographers, yet they all accomplish a unifying vision. that’s a great call. And frankly it works much more in Demon’s favor because while it’s still excessive in patches, it’s not excessive all of the time like I found it to be in OGF. Unique is the way I’d describe this one too even if the story’s one we’ve seen dozens of times

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  4. Your writing is really eloquent here Tom. From watching that trailer and seeing the poster, it looks disturbing but stylish. And of course your use of description was reliably great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An excellent, keen observation man. Same is true for me: I couldn’t express more praise for Drive and then when OGF came out it was a polar opposite situation. What a disparity. Though in fairness, I probably ought to go back and give the latter another try. There’s a lot of stuff in TND that reminded me of the interminable pauses in OGF. But there’s so much more material to latch onto here we don’t feel alienated quite so easily. And this is a really impressive, mature performance for Elle Fanning who is only 17 years old

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  5. I would watch again for the direction. And though the characters can be a bit one note (that may be more intentional now that I think about it, however), I was generally taken in by the story. Great to see your thoughts man, nice post. Love to see more in the blogosphere give their thoughts on this as opposed to something like IDR/ID42, especially since it may not be out long. That just looks so…filled with nothingness, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you do watch it again, watch out for that corpse. At least you’ll be prepared, right? God that shit was icky


        • Yeah for me too. That was a good example of Refn reverting back to his OGF kind of stuff. Of course, there was that terrible act of violence in Drive as well, so he’s always had those OTT moments. But yeah, that corpse. Jena Malone. Gross. Because I highly doubt that cadaver called her the morning after

          Liked by 1 person

    • It’s Refn returning from his mind-numbingly bad OGF, so in my book anything was going to be an improvement haha. I liked it enough, it’s visually dazzling like all his films have been but I found the moodiness of the piece to be what elevated it because character-wise and story-wise we don’t have a whole lot going on

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    • It’d be a mistake to call this movie a return to form for Refn, as even OGF had his trademark style and that was mostly the problem. It was ALL overwhelming style and absolutely no substance, and the Neon Demon is some of that too but the story that’s here and the characters and the moodiness make it far more watchable. I think this needs to be seen by a big audience for sure 🙂


  6. Great work! Definitely want to check this out – even if it sucks, at least we know visually it was always going to be amazing.

    PS: Thanks for the linkage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah thanks a lot Zoe 🙂 No problem for the link either. Given your (and my) love for all things Drive, I think you should totally give The Neon Demon a shot. Don’t get too excited though, it’s not at the level Drive is but it’s miles and miles above Only God Forgives. It’s nice to see Refn finding a better way to express his still really high-minded concepts, using striking visual imagery to tell a story. ND isn’t perfect but it works pretty well I thought

      Liked by 1 person

    • As somoene who I know appreciates well-framed imagery, I absolutely must insist you see The Neon Demon. The subject matter gets a little icky at times but it’s such a beautiful, visually arresting film and much more accessible than Refn’s previous effort so it really works.


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