Arts Review, Movies

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon featured image

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn, director & co-script w/Mary Laws & Polly Stenham

Starring: Elle Fanning (Jesse), Jena Malone (Ruby) Karl Giusman (Dean), Bella Heathcote (Gigi), Abbey Lee (Sarah), Christina Hendricks (Roberta), Keanu Reeves (Hank)

Is being an auteur a justification for creating horror films? Some would say yes and cite David Cronenberg and George Romero as two excellent filmmakers who shook us up with films like The Fly and Night of the Living Dead but did it artistically. If they can do it, should there be any reservations when Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn does the same?


The Neon Demon is a deliberately provocative film about the modeling industry in Hollywood. Refn, whose previous films include Bronson, Drive and the Pusher trilogy, is clearly a filmmaker with a vision and a number of directorial signatures. His films are violent, pictorial and, at their best, absolutely compelling. But he’s also been accused of being a manipulative misogynist, incapable of writing and directing a film about women.

His response to those accusations is this film. Set in Los Angeles, The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a 16-year-old virgin, who comes to Southern California to make it in the big time as a model. She quickly gets picked up by an agent, is immediately featured in hot film shoots and has a make up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) come on to her as a friend and mentor.


But things aren’t all great for Jesse. Two of Ruby’s friends, Sarah and Gigi, are models and jealous of her success. Jesse’s motel manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves) is an angry eccentric who simultaneously hates and desires her. And, in one of Refn’s weirdest scenes, a mountain lion breaks into Jesse’s room and destroys the place.

What will become of Jesse, the perfect girl, surrounded by all of the empty glitz and glitter of L.A? Her response to her new environment is incoherent. She becomes conceited, realizing that she represents perfection—the ideal subject for an Italian Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar fashion shoot. And yet Jesse remains vulnerable, upset with the cold hard-heartedness of Los Angeles.
A demise—tragic or simply melodramatic—seems inevitable.

The Neon Demon is shot in a glamorous style, replete with bold colourful but empty-headed aesthetics. It’s all glorious and meaningless. Refn, or RWN as he likes to be called, isn’t saying anything new but he is putting amazing images on the screen.


Is it art? Cronenberg’s vision in The Fly and so many other films—Crash, A History of Violence, etc—isn’t empty. It isn’t just about images. He has things to say about pain and sexuality and families in those films. As for Romero, his contributions have been immense, the creation of the modern zombie genre being the most important. And there were political statements about civil rights and rampant capitalism lurking underneath the surface of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

What does RWN say about L.A. or modeling in The Neon Demon? Not much. Refn should think a bit more before making his next film.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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