The Neon Demon 

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Year: 2016

Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves

Running Time: 118mins


The Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse, a naive 16 year-old girl, who has moved to LA to try to make it as a model. From the start she is singled out as someone with immense natural beauty and is quickly rising above the incumbent, older models.

Elle Fanning as Jesse

Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist, befriends Jesse and starts to show her around the fashion scene. Parties, people, connections and other models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), are introduced, but it quickly becomes obvious that friendships within this industry are few and far between. Superficial friendliness is punctuated by barbed remarks. The rivalry between models is tinged with jealousy about this newcomer showing up and taking their photo-shoots, their runway shows. As we progress it starts to become clear that it isn’t just the photographers and fashion designers that desire what she has……

Sarah: What’s it feel like?

Jesse: What do you mean?

Sarah: To walk into a room, and it’s like in the middle of winter. You’re the sun.

Jesse: It’s everything.

Shortly before the scene from the quote above we see Jesse get chosen ahead of Sarah and there is real pain and sadness in Sarah’s eyes, knowing that there is nothing she can do to combat the arrival of Jesse on the scene, no way she can make herself more appealing to those in control. But then after the exchange there is something more to Sarah’s actions, something darker.

Jesse (played excellently by Elle Fanning) has the contrast of her high fashion life against her low-cost, run down, motel (run by Hank – a prowling, moody Keanu Reeves). Also the contrast with her old photographer (Dean) keeping her attached to the real world, also clinging onto Jesse in the hopes that he will be noticed too, and her new life and friends, taking her into places where it all becomes a little surreal, more inward looking, less concern for others. We get to see Jesse going through a transformation from unsuspecting girl to fully fledged model, connecting with a mystical triangular symbol, passing through to emerge no longer naive or innocent, confident of her powers, her talents, her beauty.

There are a lot of mirrors involved in this film, allowing multiple images of the models to be on the screen at any one time, feeding their desire to be seen more, increasing their ability to be seen and placing a greater emphasis on the models image. This is particularly highlighted in the above scene of transformation.

The thing that stands out most about The Neon Demon is the cinematography. Natasha Braier has created something outstanding and breathtaking in this film. Each, almost static, shot is gorgeously composed and given more than ample time to sink in, to be admired and experienced, the colours so vivid and powerful, drawing you into the scene. Throughout there is strong use of red and blue to define emotions of characters and setting the scene. I really can’t say enough about the visual aspect of this film. I missed it on the big screen but I made sure that I bought it on Blu-ray to make the most of this feast for the eyes.

The music by Cliff Martinez works superbly well with the style and feeling of the film. Loud, booming synth tones overpower everything else, even seeming to muffle or tone down the other sounds to create a complete space of experience, you are enveloped by the sounds and the visuals. It plays almost as large a part in the film as the visuals. Again we have a contrast as the music is often followed with periods of silence or very little sound, enhancing the experience, the emotion that has just been provided to you through the music crafted by Martinez.

The film does take a sharp turn as it builds towards the end, with everyone showing their true colours (and in this film they are great colours!). There are quite a few deviations from the story we build on from the start of the film; people aren’t who they appear to be and that adds to the intrigue.

Abbey Lee as Sarah

Whilst I found this film beautiful and stylish I found it gave too much space to the visuals, arresting any momentum that had been given the chance to build up. Having said that I have a strong desire to watch this film again, to see what else I can get from it.

As I have been writing this piece and thinking about the film I am finding that there is more to be taken from it, more to experience. I know that I have used the word experience quite a lot in this review but it is simply the best word to help describe this film. It is an experience to be had. On further reflection this rating may increase!




If you want to read more into this film you can find some excellent analysis on Film Faculty’s website

And if you found yourself intrigued by this film or just drawn in by its style you should check out Nicolas Winding Refn’s other recent works: Only God Forgives, Drive and Valhalla Rising.



  1. Nicholas Winding Refn knows how to craft a visually stunning film, even if the story polarises opinion, like with this and Only God Forgives. Great review. Looking forward to seeing it.


    1. Thanks very much!
      I really liked Only God Forgives, slow, methodical, dark and violent but enthralling. This is on another level altogether, heightening everything that he put in place previously. He has worked hard to refine his work and it pays off here. Although as you say, it isn’t to everyone’s tastes, as in his previous films, but if you liked OGF and Drive this should be one for you.
      Let me know what you think when you see it!


  2. I like your descriptions of the imagery and analysis of the visual production especially. This film is visually loaded – like an art gallery exhibition almost. And Lynchian in style, how the plot development is vague and surreal at times. It’s a movie to experience for sure. Nice review.


    1. Cheers! I’m gonna need to rewatch this soon. Missed it at the cinema where I can only imagine how amazing an experience it would have been!


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