Posted on Friday, July 8th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon is a beautifully shot yet polarizing film. It’s either shallow, pretentious, sensationalistic and self-indulgent or a bold haunting hypnotic work of suspense. I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, but It has certainly remained with me since my viewing of the film over the weekend. My reaction is typical — the movie has gotten a very mixed reaction from critics and film geeks.
My viewing has prompted a deep dive into interviews and analysis of the film, and I thought I’d share some of the insights into The Neon Demon ending, the symbology and metaphors both obvious and more hidden. I’ll also attempt to answer some of your The Neon Demon questions.
Warning: Spoilers for the film follow.
The Beginning Of The End
The film opens on Jesse (Elle Fanning) laying down in a blue dress covered in blood laying totally lifeless. Or as Refn has described it, “Elle Fanning lying on the couch, covered in blood. Death and beauty. Snow White just died.” Moments later we realize that Jesse isn’t dead, the scene was created for a fashion photoshoot. Its this imagery that inspired the rest of the film. Refn told EW the following:
“Every time I was at a creative crossroad, I would go back to the opening image and say, ‘Why is it that this came to me so specifically? There’s something very similar, in a strange way, between beauty and death because the obsession of it, the longevity of it, and the youth of it can only mean that it will die, so what is one willing to do?
This opening scene is also about setting the tone for the entire film. Is this reality or is it something else? Refn wants the viewer to keep asking themselves this question while watching his film. The final act of The Neon Demon answers the question, and the answer might not be what everyone was expecting or wanting. That in mind, Refn has said that he felt the whole movie was about that last scene:
“That’s where it kind of reveals itself, so everything goes back to the beginning, but it’s not revealed until the last few minutes.”
What Do The Characters Represent?
Early in the film, Jesse meets three women: Jena Malone who plays make-up artist Ruby, and her two model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Each of the women represent a different aspect of beauty. Refn explains as much in an interview with Slant:
You have to look at the three women: You have Abbey Lee, who’s external beauty, Bella Heathcoate is a woman who tries to recreate beauty artificially, and then you have Jena Malone—who’s all about inner beauty, virginity, and innocence. Beauty is one of the most complex subjects we have within this world, because you have to look within yourself.
What about the other characters in this story? Each of them are symbolic pieces in this story as Refn explained to HollywoodChicago:
Jesse begins as the classic ‘A Star is Born’ character, coming to the big city…it’s almost a sub genre. … The photographer becomes a portal between aesthetics and obsession. The boyfriend is normalcy, but he is hypocritical. And then there is the Keanu Reeves character, who comes off as a sexual predator. All those characters are part of the Jesse DNA. They each point in different directions from her.
Its interesting that the boyfriend character is to represent normalcy, and is essentially the good guy trying to warn her of the path she is on, but he’s also an of age dude who is okay dating a 16-year-old. It may seem less weird if the movie didn’t point this out to us. Later in the film Reeves’ motel manager character warns him about girls like Jesse, and suggests he should instead look towards a younger Lolita-type girl who is staying in one of the rooms next door. I’m not sure what this is supposed to represent.
There aren’t too many male roles in the film. Aside from Keanu and the boyfriend Dean played by Karl Glusman, there’s also the sleazy fashion photographer played by Desmond Harrington. Refn has explained that the reason that the men have such small appearances is because “Men have no place in the movie.” The filmmaker told Fastcocreate:
The male characters were like the girlfriends of other films. They’re plot devices. They’re there to tell a certain part of the story mechanically. In the end, the film is all about women,” Refn says, pointing out that the guys disappear about halfway through the movie. “They were no longer needed in the film, so I took them out.”
Although I’m not sure that “girlfriends of other films” isn’t bad screenwriting.
The Mountain Lion In Jesse’s Room
It seems odd that a mountain lion would break into a second floor motel room, but the city of Pasadena does warn that the wild predators frequent the city. The imagery in The Neon Demon is often times not so subtle but in your face. The image of the mountain lion tearing up the motel room is surreal, and I think this is one way that Refn is setting up audiences for what is to come.
After the reveal of the mountain lion in Jesse’s room, Keanu Reeves’s character Hank doesn’t jump to protect Jesse. Instead he blames her for leaving the patio door open. Is the mountain lion a metaphor for how Jesse had left the door open which had allowed monsters to come into her life?