The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon is a 2016 psychological horror film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Refn, and starring Elle Fanning. The plot follows an aspiring model in Los Angeles whose beauty and youth generate intense fascination and jealousy within the industry. Supporting roles are played by Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves.
|The Neon Demon|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Nicolas Winding Refn|
|Story by||Nicolas Winding Refn|
|Music by||Cliff Martinez|
|Edited by||Matthew Newman|
|Box office||$3.4 million|
An international co-production between France, Denmark, and the United States, the film competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the third consecutive film directed by Refn to do so, following Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013). In the United States, the film was released theatrically on June 24, 2016 by Amazon Studios and Broad Green Pictures. It opened to polarized reviews, and ultimately grossed a little over $3 million against a $7 million budget.
Following the death of her parents, sixteen-year-old aspiring model Jesse has just moved from small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. She meets photographer Dean, who does her first shoot, and makeup artist Ruby, who introduces her to older fellow models Sarah and Gigi. The three women are intrigued by Jesse's natural beauty and curious about her sexual proclivities. Jesse feigns experience in the latter.
Jesse is signed by Roberta Hoffman, the owner of a modeling agency, who tells her to pretend she is nineteen and refers her to a test shoot with notable photographer Jack McCarther. Jesse goes on a date with Dean, but keeps his advances at bay. She returns to her motel room to find it ransacked and occupied by a feline that resembles a mountain lion but roars like most big cats. Jesse goes to the photo shoot with Jack, who covers her naked body in gold paint. The shoot is successful, and Gigi and Sarah begin envying Jesse's youth, while Ruby is fascinated with her.
Jesse and Sarah cross paths in a casting call for fashion designer Robert Sarno. He pays no attention to Sarah but is entranced by Jesse. After tearing her own portfolio and smashing a ladies room mirror, a distraught Sarah asks how it feels to be the focus of admiration. Jesse admits, "It's everything." Sarah lunges forward, Jesse accidentally cuts her hand on glass and Sarah sucks her blood. Jesse rushes back to her motel and faints, hallucinating strange images. Dean arrives and treats Jesse's wound after paying Hank, the lecherous motel owner, for the property damage caused by the feline.
Jesse and Gigi meet in Sarno's fashion show. Gigi describes all her past cosmetic surgery, and expresses disbelief that Jesse has not used casting couches to achieve success. As Jesse is closing the show, she has a vision of a glowing triangle she hallucinated earlier while she was unconscious. After the show, a visibly-changed Jesse goes out with Dean to a bar. They hear Sarno decry cosmetic surgery, using a humiliated Gigi as an example. In contrast, he praises Jesse's natural looks. Dean challenges this view and wants to leave with Jesse but she rejects him, now displaying a narcissistic new persona.
Jesse has a nightmare of Hank taking her off-guard and orally raping her with a knife. She wakes up in time to hear someone fidgeting with her door knob. She quickly turns the lock, but is left to listen as the intruder breaks into the adjacent room and assaults the female occupant. Terrified, she calls Ruby, who tells her to come over. Ruby tries to initiate sex with her, but Jesse rejects her, revealing herself to be a virgin. A resentful Ruby leaves for her second job as a makeup artist at a morgue, where she pleasures herself with a female corpse while fantasizing about Jesse.
Ruby returns home and finds Jesse made up, wearing a new dress and fully unabashed in her narcissism. Sarah and Gigi show up and attack Jesse with a fire-poker and a butcher knife. The three women corner Jesse outside, where Ruby pushes her into an empty swimming pool, seriously incapacitating her. They butcher and cannibalize Jesse off-screen, then take turns bathing in her blood. Occult tattoos are visible in Ruby's topless abdomen the next morning as she hoses blood off the pool and lies in Jesse's unmarked grave. She later lies nude in her moonlit living room as a torrent of blood gushes from her genitals.
Sarah drives Gigi along the Pacific Coast Highway to one of Jack's photoshoots with fellow model Annie. Jack wanders to the living room, is suddenly enthralled with Sarah and fires Annie on the spot. In the midst of the shoot, Gigi feels ill and leaves. Sarah witnesses Gigi vomit up one of Jesse's eyeballs. She screams with regret, "I need to get her out of me", and stabs herself with a pair of scissors. Sarah watches Gigi die, sheds a tear and eats the regurgitated eyeball; she then returns to the photoshoot.
The end credits scene show a woman, who does not show her face but dresses and looks like Sarah, walking alone in the Mojave Desert.
- Elle Fanning as Jesse
- Karl Glusman as Dean
- Jena Malone as Ruby
- Bella Heathcote as Gigi
- Abbey Lee as Sarah
- Desmond Harrington as Jack McCarther
- Christina Hendricks as Roberta Hoffman
- Keanu Reeves as Hank
- Alessandro Nivola as Robert Sarno
- Charles Baker as Mikey
- Jamie Clayton as Casting Director
- Houda Shretah as Sarno's assistant
On November 3, 2014, Refn's production company Space Rocket Nation alongside its co-financiers Gaumont Film Company and Wild Bunch announced that Refn's next film would be titled The Neon Demon, to be filmed in Los Angeles in early 2015. Refn commented on the conception of the project: "I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality,” he says. “I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it."
In January 2015, Dazed reported that the script for the film was inspired by Elizabeth Báthory. In discussing the script, which Refn co-wrote with Mary Laws, he stated: "I decided that I’d made enough films about violent men, and I wanted to do a film with only women in the film, and so I did this story because my wife would only go to L.A. if we had to travel out of Copenhagen. She’s like, ‘I’m done with Asia. I will only do Los Angeles.’ And so I came up with an idea and went to L.A., and I cast this woman called Elle Fanning who is absolutely fantastic, and she played the lead." In subsequent interviews, Refn stated that he visualized the film as an "adult fairy tale."
On January 6, 2015, Elle Fanning joined the film to play an aspiring model, caught in a world of beauty and demise. Fanning came to Refn's attention because of his wife, who had been impressed by her performance in an earlier film. On January 29, Abbey Lee was added to the cast to play the role of Sarah. On February 5, more cast was added to the film, including Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone and Bella Heathcote. On March 17, 2015, Karl Glusman was set to star in the film. Desmond Harrington was added to the cast on March 30, 2015.
Principal photography on the film began in Los Angeles on March 30, 2015. Locations included downtown Los Angeles, while the motel sequences were shot on location at a real motel in Pasadena.
Composer Cliff Martinez, who collaborated with director Refn on Drive, stated the films have similar styles, musically speaking, noting that for The Neon Demon he sought a "sparse electronic score." He stated in an interview that the first half of the film resembles "a melodrama like Valley of the Dolls, and the second half is like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." According to Refn and Martinez the soundtrack was influenced by Giorgio Moroder, Goblin, Kraftwerk, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.
The soundtrack for the film was released on June 24, 2016, physically and through digital download, before being released on vinyl on July 8, 2016, by Milan Records. Sia composed an original song for the film titled "Waving Goodbye". On May 24, 2016 at the Cannes Soundtrack 2016 awards, Cliff Martinez was recognized best composer of the Cannes film festival for his soundtrack to The Neon Demon.
In November 2015, Amazon Studios acquired distribution rights to the film in the United States, in partnership with Broad Green Pictures. The Jokers distributed the film in France. Scanbox Entertainment distributed the film in Denmark.
The film had its world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2016, before it was released in France on June 8, 2016. The film was then released in Denmark on June 9, followed by the United States on June 24, 2016.
The Neon Demon received a mixed response from critics. Much like Refn's previous film, Only God Forgives, the film received both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at Cannes Film Festival. It holds a 58% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 247 reviews, with an average rating of 5.9/10. The site's consensus reads, "The Neon Demon is seductively stylish, but Nicolas Winding Refn's assured eye can't quite compensate for an underdeveloped plot and thinly written characters." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 51 out of 100, based on 45 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave the film five out of five stars, stating, "When the film reaches its logical end point, Refn just keeps pushing, and eventually lands on a sequence so jaw-dropping – almost certainly a sly, glossy-magazine refashioning of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's groundbreaking surrealist short Un Chien Andalou – that all you can do is howl or cheer." Tirdad Derakhshani, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, called Refn a "bold visionary artist... able to revel in the culture of instant gratification while also subjecting it to critique", giving the film three and a half out of four stars and calling it a "brutal masterpiece". Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald wrote positively of the film's visuals and experimental filmmaking, writing, "To complain that The Neon Demon lacks substance or that it doesn't have anything to say about our cultural obsession with beauty is to miss the crazy, cracked pageant unfolding in front of you. Not all movies are intended to be read like books; some are meant to be experienced," going on to call it a "film that is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions." He awarded the film three out of four stars.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety gave the film a mixed review: "A horror film is what The Neon Demon is (sort of). It’s set in the Los Angeles fashion world, and it’s the kind of movie in which models look like mannequins that look like slasher-film corpses, and corpses look like love objects. Beauty mingles with mangled flesh, and each fastidiously slick image seems to have come out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me or The Shining or a very sick version of a Calvin Klein commercial. Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue, every pause is so hypnotically composed, so luxuriously overdeliberate, that the audience can't help but assume that Refn knows exactly what he's doing – that he's setting us up for the kill. He is, but not if you're on the lookout for a movie that makes sense. (Oh, that.)" Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a negative review and called it "[a] stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can't wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out". Glenn Kenny of The New York Times criticized the film as "ridiculous and puerile," and opined, "Mr. Refn composes striking images, but they're all secondhand: faux Fellini, faux David Lynch and so on." The Telegraph's Tim Robey deemed The Neon Demon the "most offensive film of the year," specifically citing its necrophilia sequence as exploitative, though he conceded it is not "any fault of Malone’s, who commits herself utterly to making it an anguished, desperate, if inevitably revolting minute or so of screen time. It’s a question of context, and how this scene – which stands alone, advancing nothing in the overall arc of the story, and is one of very few not to feature Fanning – slots into the film’s overall thesis."
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