Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon opens with a shot of Jesse (Elle Fanning) modeling on a photoshoot as a dead corpse. Blood drips from her neck as Fanning maintains a dead-eyed stare. It’s a long shot. The camera starts with a focus on her eye. The perspective zooms out to reveal the lighting, the backdrop, and the soundstage behind her. Fanning kept her eyes open for so long that her contacts burned her retinas, given how bright the lights were on her. The shot is the movie’s thesis: models are disposable props in service of the image, and bloody violence can be beautiful and artful.

Readers might be familiar with Refn’s Drive, a cult favorite that promises action from scene one but delivers a mostly pensive movie throughout. He does something similar here. We’re promised blood from the opening scene, and are instead treated to Fanning’s quick rise to becoming a supermodel. It’s a great trajectory, too: she’s friendly and relatable in the opening scenes, but becomes more removed and more alien as she accepts her narcissism as an asset. The promise of blood mingled with dark rooms lit by harsh neon lights is saved until close to the very end.

The threat looms ever over the entire movie, though. From the moment she meets her fellow models, jealous eyes are always upon her. A mountain lion invades her hotel room, and later she dreams that Keanu Reeves is sticking a knife down her throat. She has no home: and the rented place that she calls home is only filled with danger where the people closest to you have knives at the ready.

The sets in The Neon Demon are spectacular. The movie was made on a budget for $7 million, but holy hell does it look ten times more expensive than that. This movie should be taught as a class in the importance of good lighting. At times it seems Fanning has wandered onto a science fiction set. She’s lit in reds or blues while the darkness is pierced by simple geometric neon patterns. It’s eyecatching. It highlights Fanning’s isolation and her status as a model who can’t help but draw the eyes of everyone she comes across.

Still, this is a horror movie, and very much in the sense that fairy tales are horror stories. The violence happens, and we’re very aware that what we’re seeing is gory. Yet it’s like that opening scene that shows a slash of blood across Fanning’s neck. A splash of red liquid as it slashes across a field of blue is also a scene of sublime beauty rarely achieved.

I can’t help but think about the what Refn was trying to say, and in unconventional ways beyond simply examining the narrative. Every time I think about it, my analytical mind thinks of it less as a movie and more as a painting. I want to dissect the colors, the brush strokes, and static compositions. If I were to expound on my theories, this review would easily be 2,000 words longer.

Refn has mentioned in interviews that the movie was inspired by his wife, a model. (The movie features a dedication to her at the end.) He mentioned: “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. 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.” It’s a lofty theme to center your horror movie around. The Neon Demon is a distinct and strange oddity among the found footage, slasher movies, and paranormal haunted doll franchises littering the Amazon Prime horror movie offerings.

Kinda like Fanning’s Jesse, when you think about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars.