The Neon Demon: A pretty, dark and brutal high fashion horror film


With exaggerated style, “The Neon Demon” examines the clichéd reality of fame-seeking actress/models, and the cut-throat business of high fashion.

Moving to Los Angeles to find fame? Even if you haven’t done so yourself, you know someone who has, or who’s fantasized about it. It’s undeniably become a cliché, and there’s nothing cooler to some than debunking such wide-eyed and childish ambitions as an empty dream.

The stereotype is that so many actors end up being waiters, drug addicts, or who knows what else, all waiting for their big break. However, sometimes people do make it, and with a face fresh enough to make others jealous. This is the world of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Neon Demon, and it ain’t pretty — even though it looks that way superficially.

This world is examined in a bizarre, brutal yet oddly relateable way. When a 16-year old model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) rolls into town, everyone takes notice. Right away, older models like Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) show obvious signs of jealousy. In the modelling world, Jesse’s so-called “natural beauty” is instantly regarded as refreshing, tantalizing, more powerful than those who have had “work done.”

Of course, the supreme irony in Neon Demon (and the real world) is that people go under the knife precisely to cater to such superficiality. People get neurotic about their age, certain facial features, skin tone, hair, eyelashes, etc. The movie plays off of women playing against each other, in a private, demented world threatening to swallow its stars whole. It gets pretty dark and brutal (or maybe I should say, “Pretty, dark and brutal”).

Respect for the Title

When I first saw the title, The Neon Demon, I was drawn to the word combination. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sharknado or Zombeavers, some movie titles just draw me in. They can actually make movies better than they’d be otherwise. In this case, it is a fitting title, yet it leaves plenty of mystery. While not everyone will like The Neon Demon, the movie, I urge people to assign some respect to captivating word combinations like these.

Extravagant, Jealous and Very Hungry

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon – courtesy of Amazon Studios

As you see the lovely ladies of The Neon Demon, you begin (or should begin) to see that loveliness is an illusion. The superficial distinctions are a joke, especially to anyone who is less superficial. The other joke is that, in order to follow the story, the viewer is urged into regarding the actresses superficially, too. After all, you can’t properly analyze this film without looking at why its characters are jealous.

Originally, I struggled to see any of the women as much more attractive than the others. Sure, I could say that Sarah (or Abbey Lee) has amazing eyes, and that therefore she was more amazing, but that would just be a trick. It’s all about marketing. Hell, the title itself, The Neon Demon itself suggests a bright, glowing and attractive demon.

As the women become more sinister, you see their world as a prison. They are mentally locked into these destructive patterns, and there is less hope for redemption. The story itself may be satirical in many ways, with the style combating the substance, but that’s exactly how modelling works, right? Here it is just taken to epic, grotesque proportions. These ladies — starved for attention while on a forced diet — have to get additional nutrients from somewhere, right?

The Music

A big part of The Neon Demon‘s mood is set by the music, which joins the visuals to create a hypnotic, dreamlike effect. While it may be praised or condemned, it’s an established fact that synthesizer music creates unique possibilities for a film score. There are both subtle and explosive shifts in mood throughout, which the synth music is a big part of. This movie, then, is a great example of style almost standing on its own, even apart from its content. Each different element adds its own intensity, and the depravity on the screen definitely goes with the sound.

The Men of “The Neon Demon”

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For an over-the-top film like this, it’s refreshing that the men almost play a passive role. Sure, Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington) is a renowned photographer who could make or break a model, but he does so with quiet aplomb. He comes off as creepy, but as an artist while doing so. While not an outright villain, his presence does seem to overpower any subject he captures, which hints at the exaggerated power of his profession.

Dean (Karl Glusman) is a relatively minor character, sort of on the periphery of Jesse’s life. Frankly, nothing about him is glamorous, and he’s just an “everyman” kind of guy. It totally makes sense for him to become less relevant as the film progresses, as it suggests Jesse will quickly move beyond him, and into this other, tantalyzingly hypnotic world. Why have someone like him around, except maybe as a temporary curiosity — a reminder of the old world?

Then you have two additional, relatively minor characters, Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) and Hank (Keanu Reeves). Hank is literally just a landlord-type character, and has almost no significance in the film. Robert Sarno also doesn’t have much screen time (or even much presence), but it’s implied that he has considerable sway in the fashion world. When he highlights Jesse’s natural beauty as being above the other girls, they take it very personally. In essence, what may have been offhand remarks become like a death sentence. Jesse’s competitors see her as a threat, and ultimately decide to take action.

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In Summation

This movie won’t be for everyone, but I think most will find it unique, if nothing else. You’ll probably need a certain mood to enjoy it, but the film might create that mood for you.

What are your thoughts? Does The Neon Demon shine for you? Let us know in the comments!