Nicholas Winding Refn has this unique ability to make films that you may love or hate, but you simply cannot ignore. I still haven’t been able to sit through “Only God Forgives”, but I keep hearing and reading about it even today, years after its release. The Neon Demon is his latest offering and it is easily one of the most polarizing and thought provoking films of the year. There are many who are finding its crazy third act too much to fathom while there are also those who are going all ga ga about it. I fall somewhere in the middle of those two categories as I neither hated nor actually drooled over the choices that Refn makes towards the end. In this review I would dwell deep into the film with lots of spoilers. So for all those who haven’t seen it before, I urge you all to watch the film first and then come back to this review.
The story stars with our protagonist Jesse (Elle Fanning) undertaking a photo-shoot. The film lingers long enough on the shoot to give us a proper look at the art. Jesse is covered in blood and lying still on a chair with the photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), who also happens to be an associate of her, that we come to know later, taking her picture. He seems to be a creepy guy by the way he looks at her. After the photo-shoot, we are introduced to Ruby (Jena Malone), who happens to be a makeup artist. She is overly sweet to Jesse and the two immediately strike off a friendship. Ruby introduces Jesse to two more top models. While one of them loves the way she looks and compliments her, the other looks at her with some contempt. Jesse doesn’t help the matter by passing some displeasing remarks on one of them. The four then immerse themselves in a show which is highly cerebral in nature.
Following the night-out, Jesse meets the head of a top modeling agency, who is smitten by her beauty right away. Jesse confesses to being sixteen years old to which the head tells her to always tell others that she was nineteen years old and not an year older. Jesse is quickly called for a test photo-shoot with a top of the line photographer. On the day of the shoot, Jesse has to strip down completely as the creepy photographer shoots her in gold. As she completes the photo-shoot and comes out, Jesse meets Ruby who asks her to be careful of the men in the industry and asks her to give her a call whenever she needs. Jesse tastes unprecedented success. She is soon selected by one of the top designers to be the show stopper for his collection. This doesn’t go well with Sarah (Abbey Lee), one of the two models she met in the show earlier. In the washroom, after the selections, Sarah assaults Jesse. She somehow escapes and finds solace in the company of Dean at her own house.
Even at her own home she is somehow harassed by Hank (Keanu Reeves), the owner of the house that she rents. In a bizarre episode, Jesse finds a leopard in her room one night when she returns from her date with Dean. Hank goes to the extent of making her boyfriend Dean pay for the damages caused by the leopard, which he believes could enter the room only because, Jesse kept the door open. However on the professional front, Jesse excels. She soon meets Gigi (Bella Heathcote), the second of the two models she met earlier at the show with Ruby. Gigi is a pro and has been in the industry for a very long time. Jesse, however, in a last moment change by the designer, gets to be the show stopper. This hurts Gigi badly.
Post the show, Jesse’s attitude changes completely. She shuns Dean out of her life and gets obsessed with herself. She overhears what she believes to be a savage episode involving Hank and another tenant of his. She calls up Ruby and asks to spend the night with her. Ruby obliges. While in her house, Ruby makes sexual advances on her which she refuses. Ruby, as we already know is a makeup artist who also helps transitioning the dead in their final passage. She is also into necrophilia as we see in a brief but shattering sequence. Jesse, by now has completely become obsessed about herself. There is a sequence which inter-cuts between Ruby having a sexual innuendo with a corpse and Jesse touching herself which shows us the two sides of the same coin. While Jesse is completely immersed in herself which happens to be her obsession, Ruby has sex with a corpse which is her obsession.
Following that sequence, the two meet by the empty swimming pool for a while where Jesse boasts a final time about her natural beauty. She is all dressed up. Following this sequence, she is attacked by Ruby, Gigi and Sarah and the three end up eating her. They then take a bath cleansing her blood that was on them. This sequence resembles a coven of witches doing their will on a moonlight night. They go about their daily routines the next day. While Gigi and Sarah join the same hotshot photographer, who made Jesse’s first professional portfolio, for a new and coveted assignment, now that Jesse was out of the way, Ruby unleashes her woman hood under a moonlit sky. Gigi is however unable to accept what she had done to Sarah and commits suicide trying to take out Jesse from her Body but not before regurgitating a partly digested eye ball. Sarah, on the contrary is totally cool about the episode and lives on comfortably.
The film uses the color palette and editing to highlight important aspects of the characters of the film. While the first half uses neon and bluish hues a lot, the second half uses reds as a sign of the demon. It must also be noted that scenes involving the leopard and the final unleashing of the bodily fluids of Ruby are not only metaphorical expressions of the sense that the director wants to convey but also finds a real life manifestation implying the arrival of the demon in the life of Jesse in the first instance and the high that Ruby experiences eating her in the second. The men in the film are portrayed as strange and creepy and they are in-fact the only ones who are good. While Dean in the best of the lot who actually wants to save Jesse, even Hank is never shown doing any harm to Jesse apart from the dream sequence which is totally her mental manifestation. However, the women, who try to be nice and comforting to her end up eating her.
The eating up of Jesse is as much a physical act as it is a symbol of consuming her beauty. Jesse was beautiful and nothing else. She had nothing but her beauty and that in the end proved to be her biggest enemy. The matter is made worse by her vanity and a feeling of pride that she acquires as she goes ahead in the industry. The film makes it a point to nail down the fact that Jesse is nothing more than a ravishing beauty. At many junctures we find her sense of humor and even her sense of talking what’s right, to be very dumb. She hasn’t completed high school and shuns her only friend and the one who did her first portfolio in a matter of seconds. Thus it is proved that she is not only dumb but very selfish as well. It also shows us that the world has tendency of taking away the most intimate of your possessions, characterized here by physical beauty. It’s interesting to see Jesse dump Dean in a moment when he was in a verbal duel with someone to highlight that Jesse has inert goodness which attracted him more than her external beauty.
The Neon demon is one twisted film that you need to see multiple times to actually grasp the thoughts that went into making this film. It’s really tough to get it in the first go but on multiple views, things start getting clearer. On the question whether or not it is good, the answer is not simple. This is a film that will be hated by the people who are in for the simpler fair. On the contrary it will be loved by those who live and breathe by art-films. It is open to varied interpretations and outlooks, which makes it a film that has a lot of re-see value. The material on display is not exactly entertaining or for family audiences, which will take away a lot of viewers. This here is a film which will cater to a niche audience and my rating is in keeping with that niche audience. If this is not the kind of film you like, then just don’t get into it. However if you do, chances are you might just adopt an acquired taste.
Rating : 3.5/5 (3.5 out of 5 Stars)