Our main character, or character archetype in this case, is a young girl named Jesse (Elle Fanning). She has just moved from a small town in Georgia to Los Angeles to make a career for herself in the LA fashion industry. She’s young, innocent, seemingly naïve, and possesses an enchanting and haunting beauty. Jesse is soon taken under the wing of a local make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), but not before her quick success and incredible looks arouses the jealously of a pair of competing models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, respectively). As Jesse learns to navigate the cutthroat competition of the fashion industry, she quickly learns of the power her beauty bestows upon her, and of the terrible price she may have to pay for it.
Now, while that blurb probably reminded you of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, it’s really only similar on the surface. First and foremost, The Neon Demon is a Refn film through and through. It has all the same defining characteristics as Drive and Only God Forgives. It has the impeccably well-done camerawork and scenes drenched in garish neon colors. It has long stretches of silence, including lots of people staring intently at each other (although he has toned that down from his past films). And just as Ryan Gosling played the strong, silent male archetype, Elle Fanning plays the young, sweet, innocent female archetype (although Refn does subvert it to an extent). It very much feels like the logical successor to his two previous works.
However, where The Neon Demon differs is its subject matter. And by this I don’t mean just violence, although Refn has certainly never shied away from graphic violence in his films. The Neon Demon is not only graphically violent (although to a lesser degree than Only God Forgives), but depicts the characters committing a wide range of morally reprehensible acts in ways that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. I know I’m being somewhat vague here, but I really do think that apart from the disclaimer that you might be incredibly disgusted and disturbed by what you see on screen, you should go into the movie knowing as little as possible. I will say, though, that at least a dozen people walked out of the screening I attended, including one women who yelled about how this movie is “sick and twisted” and that “you’re demonic if you enjoy this!”
But apart from those who literally walked out of the theatre, and the collective bewilderment of the audience, every single person I talked to after the screening loved the film. Why is that? The Neon Demon made me confused, terrified, and frequently disgusted at what was being depicted on screen. It’s a surreal (and surprisingly comedic) mind-fuck which feels like a giant middle finger from Refn to everyone who told him to make a more “normal” or “accessible” film after Only God Forgives. It is a movie which revels in its ability to shock, offend, and disturb its audience, including its ability to make us laugh at some truly awful things. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure why I love it so much- I feel like I need a few more days to digest the film before writing a review of it. But what I do know is that Refn has made the most perplexing, disturbing, and beautiful film of the year. And that it is amazing.