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Film / The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon is a 2016 psychological horror-thriller directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, with a screenplay by Mary Laws & Polly Stenham. The film stars Elle Fanning, with Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone and Desmond Harrington in supporting roles.

Jesse (Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model who arrives in Los Angeles to start her career. After a chance encounter with a well-connected makeup artist (Malone), she has a meteoric rise among the ranks in the fashion business, with her irresistible beauty and virginal youth giving her an incredible edge over her competitors.

However, the intense fascination surrounding Jesse also gives way to attention of a dangerous, sinister kind from fellow models consumed by jealousy and obsessed with beauty, and it isn't long before she comes face to face with the true darkness of an industry that's cutthroat in more than just a figurative sense.


Shot on location in LA, the film — described by Refn as an "adult fairy tale" and an ode to the complexity of beauty — fashions key characteristics out of its enigmatic pacing and its surrealist, metaphorical imagery.

The Neon Demon provides examples of:

  • Alpha Bitch: Gigi spends the film trying to be this, but it's clear she feels threatened by others.
  • Always Someone Better: Sarah definitely feels this way when Jessie is picked over her.
  • Amateur Photographer: Dean is called this when Roberta Hoffman interviews Jesse.
  • Ambiguously Human: Jessie. There are several hints through out the movie that she is not fully human.
  • And Starring: Keanu Reeves.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In the restaurant, Dean and the fashion designer argue about beauty. Earlier, Dean insisted to Jesse that there was more to her than her looks. In the restaurant, Dean challenges the fashion designer's claim that beauty is all that matters (and gives the above-cited quote). The fashion designer then asks Dean if he would be interested in Jesse if she did not look the way she does. This makes Dean uncomfortable, so he asks Jesse if they can leave.
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  • Artistic License: The shoot Jessie does with Jack is a nude one, and certain things imply Jessie did not know it would be. The laws surrounding nude scenes or photography state that the actor or model know well in advance what the conditions will be, what will be seen etc. If Jessie did know in advance, then she would probably not have gone onto set wearing a dress - as she would have to have make-up done for her whole body (and if she were having pictures taken in the dress, she would have to pause after those were done to have make-up redone for the nudes). She would instead be more likely to have a robe, which she would be free to change into when not shooting. Jack also dismisses everyone to make it a closed set - which means non-essential crew members are not present for the nudity. Ruby is also dismissed but, as a make-up artist, she would be considered essential to touch up Jessie's (especially when shooting under hot studio lights).
  • Attempted Rape: Ruby attempts this with Jesse and gets physically shoved off the bed. Unfortunately, successful with Hank's attempt on the 13-year-old girl in room 214.
    • Or maybe not so successful, since it's left ambiguous who exactly did what in room 214. We only hear the noises that frighten Jesse.
  • Attention Whore: Sarah, to murderous levels.
  • Bait-and-Switch: A favorite trick of the movie, especially in its first half - the film likes to suggest that something sinister is going on, only to reveal it's a relatively mundane happening (with no accounting for creepiness). This is best shown with Dean, who is introduced in intimidating shots and gives a very dark impression, only to be revealed that he's an innocent kid.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness:
  • Beauty Is Best: As Jessie says, she has no talents, but she has her beauty.
    "...and I can make money off pretty."
  • Bitch Alert: Gigi establishes herself as an antagonist by throwing some passive aggressive comments Jessie's way - also subtly taunting her about being an orphan.
  • Blood Bath: Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi murder Jesse, a beautiful and virginal young woman, and not only bathe in her blood but cannibalize her as well. Refn said he was directly inspired by the tales of Elizabeth Bathory.
  • The Cameo: Nicolas Winding Refn's wife Liv Corfixen (who the film is dedicated to) is one of the guests at the restaurant. Christina Hendricks serves as a slightly longer example of this.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The door to Jesse's motel room. The fact that it is difficult to open gives Jesse the time to double lock it to prevent a rapist from getting in.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ruby's second job as a mortician, which might have come in handy when she later mutilates Jessie and disposes of her corpse.
  • Color Motif: A lot of blues and reds are used in the early part of the film, so much so, that media outlets remarked about it. Director Refn frequently saturates scenes with a single color of light in his films because he is colorblind.
  • D-Cup Distress: Gigi had her breasts reduced to get more work (as in the fashion world, clothes benefit smaller chest sizes).
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Dean follows the trend of Refn's male characters. Ruby, too, although she's less sanguine about it.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Sarah snaps at Jessie for trying to reassure her after the failed audition - telling her not to pretend she doesn't know the effect she has on people.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Another NWR staple. Jessie wakes up to see Hank forcing a knife deeper and deeper into her mouth before she suddenly wakes up revealing it was a dream. Then Hank (or someone else) comes to the door for real, and Jessie is able to preemptively lock her door. However, since so much of the movie is ambiguous, it is quite possible that this dream was just a Red Herring, and that in reality Hank did nothing and someone else was behind the door.
  • Eccentric Fashion Designer: Roberto Sarno is portrayed as eccentric in a bad way, viciously humiliating models who attend his casting calls, ranting about Jesse's beauty, and eventually shepherding her into vicious narcissism, personified by his trippy show.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: The three models, including the most "beautiful" (Jesse, Gigi, and Sarah), are all blonde, while Ruby (a makeup artist and not a model) is brunette.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jessie wears her hair curly in the first half of the film. Her success as a model and subsequent Took a Level in Jerkass are marked with her hair being worn straight.
  • Fairest of Them All: This seems to be the general reaction to Jessie. Like Snow White, this comes with consequences.note 
    Ruby: She's got that... thing.
  • Fan Disservice: A lot of the scenes that would be normally sexy are treated with this and it makes the tension and atmosphere far more suffocating as a result.
    • Jessie has to first strip to her underwear and then completely nude. She's clearly uncomfortable doing so, and the audience knows she's only sixteen (with the photographer believing she's a nineteen-year-old).
    • Lots of models in their underwear? It's at an audition with an indifferent casting director.
    • Jessie in a nightie - after she's had to flee from a crime scene and is being groomed by a Lesbian Vampire.
    • Jessie seductively draped over a couch and writhing around is Ruby's wet dream about an underage girl while she's molesting a corpse.
    • There is a seen were Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote shower nude together. Why is it a disservice? They are washing off Elle Fanning's blood.
  • Fashion Model: Obviously but Gigi, Sarah, and Jesse all serve as examples.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Ruby. Upon first meeting her, she appears to be sweet and helpful, then towards the last quarter of the film, we learn that this was a facade and that she's really a complete monster in reality.
  • From Bad to Worse: After rejecting Dean and almost getting raped by Hank, Jesse runs to Ruby, who's her last friend. Then both we and Jesse realize how screwed up Ruby really is...
  • Gainax Ending: Jesse gets eaten, Ruby lies naked in the moonlight and menstruates a flood of blood, Gigi throws up Jesse's eye and commits harakiri with scissors to get "Jesse out of her" and Sarah proceeds to eat said eye. Yeah...
  • The Ghost: The girl in room 214.
  • Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Subverted. Ruby is a lesbian and there are a lot of somewhat erotic scenes of her helping Jesse. But when she actually has sex with a's a naked corpse in a mortuary. And then she tries to rape Jesse, further subverting this.
  • Gorn: Typically for a Refn film used for shock value and grotesque.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Played straight with Jesse's death falling into the empty pool but subverted with Sarah eating the vomited up eyeball.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: From a melodrama about a young girl being swallowed by the fashion industry into a surreal horror full of cannibals, necrophiles and scorned lesbians.
  • High-Class Cannibal: Possibly. Jesse flees from the fleapit motel to a gorgeous mansion where Ruby is apparently housesitting. Ruby, Sarah. and Gigi then kill Jesse and cannibalize her for youth. It's left ambiguous how wealthy they really are, but it's a common theory that Ruby is much older than she seems and that was her house.
  • House of Broken Mirrors: The scene where Jesse meets Sarah in the ruined bathroom, after her Rage Against the Reflection.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Possibly the reason Ruby kills Jessie after Jessie rejects her.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Ruby, Gigi and Sarah proceed to eat Jesse and bathe in her blood.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Jessie is frequently described as noticeably more beautiful than Gigi or Sarah. The plot is driven by her being unusually attractive even for a fashion model.
  • The Ingenue: Jesse appears to be a sweet, delicate, unworldly girl. But as we find out, she can also be dangerous.
  • Intimate Hair Brushing: Ruby brushes Jessie's hair to calm her down after escaping Hank from the motel.
  • Ironic Inversion: Sarah the experienced model is passed over in favor of newbie Jessie.
  • I Love the Dead: Somewhat arguable as it's treated as much with a masturbatory fantasy on the part of Ruby after being rejected by Jesse.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Naïve Newcomer and Ingenue Jessie is the Light, contrasted with more cynical girls like Sarah and Gigi.
  • Jailbait Wait: Jessie's agent says to lie that she's nineteen rather than eighteen, as eighteen is "too on the nose."
  • Jerkass: Quite a few. Sarah, Gigi, Hank, Jack McCarther, Robert Sarno. And most definitely, Ruby.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Literally with Ruby, who is a make-up artist. She's glamorous enough that Jessie mistakes her for a model at first.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • The implied ease and readiness that Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah had in killing and eating Jesse, along with what transpires afterward at least with Sarah and Ruby gives a slight bit of supernatural cadence to an otherwise straight arthouse horror film. Also teased earlier in the film when Sarah goes so far as to lick the blood from Jesse's cut hand in the bathroom.
    • Although the scene with Ruby's full moon ritual in which she menstruates an improbable amount of blood as well as her sporting occult tattoos on her chest definitely seems to push the movie into a more supernatural angle. However, given that the movie plays with hallucinations and dreams, it could certainly just be a fantasy she's having.
  • Morality Pet: Dean to Jessie. When she casts him aside and he leaves, everything goes downhill for her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: As the film's ending displays, Gigi was clearly unable to stomach what she did to Jessie.
  • My Parents Are Dead: This partly explains why Jesse is in Los Angeles in the first place.
  • Nice, Mean, and In-Between: Jessie has to contend with the friendly surrogate big sister Ruby, passive aggressive and territorial Gigi, and the insecure but slightly more sympathetic Sarah. Subverted when all three of them murder and cannibalize her.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Refn was apparently inspired by the story of Elizabeth Bathory when writing the script. You can definitely see shades of this in the way Ruby resolves her unhealthy obsession with Jessie.
  • Not Good with Rejection: Ruby, to say the least.
  • Obliviously Beautiful: Jessie at first tries to play this up, but Sarah sees right through it. Sure enough, see Proud Beauty below.
  • Plastic Bitch: Alpha Bitch Gigi is described by her plastic surgeon as "The Bionic Woman" for the amount of plastic surgery she's had. She starts the movie by bullying Jesse for being an orphan, and ends it by killing and eating her to try and consume youth. She regrets the cannibalism and kills herself, but it's still too late to redeem her.
  • Plenty of Blondes: All the model main characters are blondes, and two blondes can be seen in the waiting room at Jessie's agency. The agent even dismisses one of them.
  • Proud Beauty: What's it feel like, you walk into a room, and it's like in the middle of winter and you're the sun?
  • Psycho Lesbian: Ruby. Between nearly raping Jesse to the necrophilia, she definitely has some screws loose.
  • Rage Against the Reflection: After being completely ignored by the fashion designer, Sarah crushes a large mirror after looking at herself for a long while.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: Happens to Ruby when Jesse rejects her sexual advances towards her.
  • Rape as Drama:
    • Hank sneaks into Jesse's room and molests her with a knife. It turns out to be a premonition and she manages to lock the door. Instead, Hank goes to the new girl and rapes her. The new girl is 13.
    • Then right after this, Jessie is nearly raped by her friend, Ruby.
  • Random Events Plot: The already sketchy plot ultimately collapses halfway through and turns the film into a collection of random scenes with less and less relationship between each of them.
  • Rewatch Bonus: A lot pertaining to Ruby.
    • She asks Jessie about her family to check if she has anyone who will miss her.
    • Her slightly pushy manner of getting Jessie to give her personal details and insisting she have her number, also talking about how Jack is untrustworthy all reek of Gaslighting Jessie into thinking she can only count on Ruby.
    • Before the nude shoot, she offers to stay on set. She's hoping for a peek at naked Jessie herself.
    • Are you food or sex? She's food.
  • Older Than They Look: Jesse is told to lie and say that she is 19 despite being 16 years old.
  • Only Sane Man: Dean is the only character who is remotely normal.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Bella Heathcoate slips back into her natural Australian accent, sometimes at the start of sentences. Unless Gigi is meant to be an Australian who is losing her accent.
  • Signature Style: Strong use of primary colors. The main colors are blue and purple, with Refn's beloved red being less used. When it's used, it's with a vengeance.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The scenes towards the end with the empty swimming pool are very similar to the ending shot of Milo's empty pool in Pusher 3.
    • Hank calls a girl he intends to pimp out, "real Lolita shit".
    • The runaway scene is done in the style of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising.
    • Ruby uses "Red Rum" lipstick, in reference to The Shining.
  • Sleazy Photoshoot: The underage Jesse's first real job in LA is a naked photoshoot where she is covered by gold paint. There's a lot of emphasis on Jack, the much older photographer, rubbing Jesse's chest with paint. Ruby then jumps in and warns Jesse not to be alone with Jack, which may be true but also may be Ruby taking advantage of the situation to befriend Jessie.
  • Spiritual Successor: Surprisingly, to Bronson. Jesse's speech about why she wanted to become a model is eerily similar to the opening speech in Bronson.
  • Stealth Insult: At a photoshoot, Gigi complains to Jesse that she’s not sure about the makeup, and Jesse responds that "it’s perfect." Gigi happens to be wearing clown makeup.
  • Stress Vomit: Happens to Gigi after she helps eat Jesse.
  • Symbolic Glass House: Ruby housesits in a house like this and persuades Jesse to come and see her after Jesse is nearly raped in her very seedy motel room. Ruby and the models ultimately kill Jessie in a swimming pool there and bathe in her blood.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: After her success at the fashion show, Jesse becomes vain and superficial, her transition symbolized by the hallucination scene.
  • Virgin Power: Suggested in increasingly unsettling ways with Jessie.
  • Visual Pun: By the end of the film, the modeling world has literally chewed Jessie up and spit her out.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: A female example with Ruby. Subverted in that it is not at all fanservicey. Ruby's chest and arms turn out to be covered in crude occult tattoos, and she's washing away Jessie's blood with a hose.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Is Jesse's body still buried? Do the police get involved after Gigi's death?
    • A more obvious example of this trope is Hank, since the entire "motel" storyline (including him) just gets abandoned around 75% into the film, despite being set up as important (and Hank is played by Keanu Reeves, who is probably the biggest star of the whole cast).
    • Also, we never find out what happens to Dean.
  • The Weird Sisters: Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi are revealed to be a coven of sorts.
  • Woman Scorned: Ruby apparently doesn't know the meaning of the word "no". It ultimately leads to her performing Death by Woman Scorned on Jessie.
  • World of Jerkass: Every character except the boyfriend is a Jerkass. See Jerkass and Took a Level in Jerkass for more information.