*Warning: This article is full of spoilers*
Somewhere in LA, a blonde girl in a purple dress is gracefully placing one foot in front of the other, lifting her skirts to see where her feet fit into the grooves of the rooftop’s edge. She’s made up her mind to jump into the pit of jaguars and panthers who are weaving figure eights into the tar below, practically pulling her down with them in growling snarls and glints of sharp teeth. She thrives on danger.
That’s what Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is all about. The loss of innocence as a byproduct of giving into the seduction of sin-soaked LA fashion.
The film is dripping with metaphors, hardly hidden behind the persistent pulse of a strobe light timed to the rhythm of synth bass beats. Refn conducted his team toward perfection in creating an art film that leaves you traumatized anew after every scene.
Is The Neon Demon shot in 4K? A reddit user says he shot 60 frames per second, which would be the ideal choice to capturing all those strobing lights. Refn masterfully nails reds and blues flashing in the dark. And his framing is just impeccable. He follows the photographer’s Rule of Thirds almost to a “T” and a lot of his scenes are shot through mirrors. Does that make the entire film as appearing backwards, connotating the wrong perception, a negative reflection of reality?
In one scene, the camera focuses in on Jesse’s face for a full 20 seconds or more, and the shot is framed immaculately. Cut up with black key frames, your eyes first latch onto Fanning’s eyes, which move to the shimmering gold makeup carving into the contours of her cheekbones, the clip holds on, your eyes relax and you travel down her gold-painted neck, to her shoulder blades, and light upon the freckles resting there.
As as the photographer comes closer, her heart rate quickens, her eyes enlarge and you’re hooked in again. Then the angle changes, and you feel as if you’ve been in a trance, thinking, “Wait, what’s happening here? Is the photographer going to force himself on her? Is she going to just stand there and take it?”
Unlike the presentiment intimated by the trailer highlighting the money, the clothes, and the self-destructive glory of living as an LA model, there was no sex shown throughout the film. There is a scene where Gigi and Sarah bathe in Jesse’s blood, while Ruby looks on, as if to indicate there would be no show, without someone watching. The entire scene is unnerving.
The main focus forms a panoramic view, inside and out, of the virgin’s psyche. Jesse’s lack of experience, youthful beauty, and natural rebelliousness evinced through an otherwise modest demeanor culminates in the personification of innocence. Refn’s use of interspersing scenes of blues and reds show Jesse emerging from blue light, frightened, to walk boldly into the red. She glides in on silver wings, touches down into the inner circle, and shows the rest of them that she doesn’t belong to their herd, that she will do it her way and she doesn’t need to fuck anybody to do it.
Jesse, 16, lies and says she was 19 to pass through the gates of hell. Older models, be it girls yet 20 years old, are scared they will lose their livelihood to new blood. Backed into a corner, the models attack her. Together they comprise the mountain lion that stakes its territory over her motel bedroom.
Jesse isn’t safe anywhere. She’s strong, but there are too many dark forces at play, she’s forced to submit to the knife pushed down her throat. And they bury her. They literally bury the girl and eat her, an ancient ritual of taking in one’s powers. It’s the nature of the beast, kill or be killed.
The Neon Demon is best experienced in a theater. At once, you’re peeking out of the crack of a sterile bathroom stall, watching as the models thrash out with their first initial taunt toward Jesse. Ruby says, “I heard there was going to be a show,” and pulls Jesse behind a curtain.
What unfolds is a microcosmic metaphor that can be extrapolated upon the rest of the movie. Picture a naked girl bound and gagged, being lifted in the air, while people take photos of her. There’s a club bass beat bludgeoning all your senses simultaneously and your body is at once voluntarily extricating itself from the La-Z-Boy you’re reclining in, and you’re shaking a little bit because you’re not sure whether to be horrified or turned on.
Cliff Martinez created the original score for the film. This is the only possible sound that would fit with such a movie.
The bass beats are perfectly in time with the lighting, creating a scintillating story through sound that conducts the emotion of the film. Martinez weaves through the heat of the room with shifting notes like he’s wiping a bloody blade on black leather. Then he cools you off by plucking the synth keys to the effect of cold steel pressed against your back. You’re engrossed and terrified, and your palms are getting a little clammy by the thrall of Martinez’s sweeping musical advances.
Without him, this movie would make absolutely no sense.
As Jesse creeps closer to these automatons, she finds she’s discovers that the models are not people. Abbey Lee performs Sarah’s character flawlessly, in that she takes on the persona of a dolled-up machine. In one scene, she takes off her sunglasses, as if they were glued to her face, her movements stilted, robotic, and with gleaming plastic eyes, she leans closer to the blue carpet stained with fresh blood to pick up Jesse’s hazel eye that Gigi puked-up, she plucks it into her mouth and savors the taste.
Keanu Reeves (Hank, and what a perfect name for a dirty old man) plays the macho landlord of the motel where Jesse lives. It’s clear he’s only interested in destroying young girls. Reeves comes across as a dirty, drugged-up asshole and with bulging belly he barrels his way through the hall to bust into a poor girl’s room, presumably to have his way with her and kill her.
Jena Malone (Ruby) is creepy. Why did she have to make love to that dead woman lying on the embalming table? She is the perfect choice as the manipulative lesbian lover who’s scorned by the incarnation of her ultimate fantasy. Her eyes tell it all: the lust, the doubt, complacency, and above all the need to feed.
Jesse is designed to crest the wave of passing over out of innocence and into a world of sin. Elle Fanning performs the transformation as if she were made for the role. With her long legs and transparent gaze, she could have been a model in another life. Or, perhaps through this film she lived the life of a model for a time.
The virgin always dies
That’s the standing motto with horror movies, right? Nicolas Winding Refn stayed true to the caveat and fulfilled his role of creating the next best obscure art house movie for cultish fiends.
In interview with Elle Fanning, she admitted though they stayed true to most of the script, the direction of the film took twists and turns according to the whims of the crew. Halfway through, the team felt they should go darker, and so they created an alternate ending, which ended up making the final cut in the movie.
Everyone was so deeply embedded in the story, from the director down to the composer of the score, that watching the film is like being on set with them, feeling through the balmy caves the perverted inner sanctum of seduction.
The Neon Demon is one of the only original films fully scripted for the screen, in theaters right now. If I had to make the choice to watch Sausage Party or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I would go see The Neon Demon again.