The Neon Demon bears some of the strongest filmmaking aesthetics of the year”

by Steve Pulaski

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young, aspiring model who has just moved to Los Angeles with no parents and little money. She’s told by her contemporaries, all of whom have had Botox, plastic surgery, and body-work done to resemble human Barbie dolls more-so than women in their early twenties, that nobody likes the way they look and everyone wants to change something about themselves in order to either be accepted or self-confident. Jesse is the outlier amongst her peers because she doesn’t possess the will, desire, or need to change anything about her image; when she walks into a room, judges and photographers quietly shift their eyes to her direction and notice her physical beauty that practically radiates off of her wavy blonde hair and embodied innocence. She’s beautiful.

It isn’t long before Jesse becomes involved in a modeling agency all while living in a rundown little motel run by a sleazy man, played by Keanu Reeves, who has a scene-stealing sequence where he collects money for damages done to Jesse’s room from a friend and proclaims that there is a fourteen-year-old girl who is staying in a specific room. “Real Lolita s***,” he tells him, as his eyes widen and his smirk grows with devilish intent. Meanwhile, Jesse winds up becoming the envy of fellow models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote). Jesse’s only friend through this all is a young makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), who spends the bulk of her time applying makeup onto corpses in a morgue she works in.

The Neon Demon
Written & Directed by
Nicolas Winding Refn
Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Release Date
24 June 2016
Steve’s Grade: A+

Consider the sequence where Ruby carefully applies makeup to a dead woman and gently adjusts her face in order for her to smile; in another scene, she makes love to a dead man on a cold, metal table, in a scene that’s oddly one of the most romantic of the year. It’s a scene that takes note of the human desire to beautify the ugly or the imperfect; a constant desire not only to soften but desensitize us not only to value beauty but to accept it as normative and everything else as abnormal.

The same thing can be said with Jesse. Here’s this young girl who is viewed as perfect by everyone, so much so that it takes almost no preparation or makeup to get her ready for the day’s shoot, while her contemporaries spend hours in makeup chairs and dressing rooms exhausting themselves to look, play, and feel the part. Jesse’s natural beauty is something that is unheard of; not only does she not need any kind of work done, she knows it too, and she’s caught in the middle of an industry that predicates itself upon fixing or mending imperfections upon identifying them. Jesse is the demon in the rough.

If this sounds less like a structured review and more like messy, disorganized praise, that’s because it is. Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a mesmerizing film with subtext to match its heavily aestheticized, original beauty. It’s a rare, sensual, neon-soaked confection that combines blunt (the cougar, triangular prisms) and subtle (food, sex, and dessert) symbology with that of amazing and eye-popping cinematography by Natasha Braier to create a world one could mistake for being a dystopian land rather than reality.

The Neon Demon almost hypnotizes the viewer in the way it uses sound, light, and beauty to appeal to our most basic, carnal senses, and snaps its fingers on occasion for us to try and decipher and decode a lot of its meanings. I’ll be honest and admit I find less meaning in the blunt symbolism as I do the more lower-key subtext. The film is less a critique on the benefits the patriarchy reaps as young women figuratively and literally kill themselves to be accepted and to feel beautiful as it is a look at the way women themselves operate in this world. It’s a look at the need for beauty in all facets, as well as it is a harrowing and downright grotesque showcase for what happens when beauty can’t be matched or duplicated.

This is the kind of film that will divide audiences, even before the explosive and unforgettable climax, as many great movies often do. Some will claim it’s too slow, others will clam it’s too monotone, and others will claim its non-eventful. There’s not much to say about that other than the fact that The Neon Demon bears some of the strongest filmmaking aesthetics of the year, including cinematography, sound design, and of course, the incredible soundtrack that both matches and creates the film’s ambience marvelously. This is the rare film that has everything it needs to not only succeed but to etch itself into that rare class of unforgettable films, let alone experiences.