Movie Review: ‘THE NEON DEMON’ – Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget it


Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE NEON DEMON | 117 min | R
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle FanningJena MaloneAbbey LeeBella HeathcoteDesmond HarringtonKarl GlusmanAlessandro NivolaChristina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves

Cinematic art is hard to define, being a matter of personal preference and interpretation. By necessity, however, anything worthy of the descriptor must be appreciated for the skills of the artist. Whether it be psychological or visionary, art is very much an individual experience that can highlight or shadow a filmmaker’s mastery.

Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE, ONLY GOD FORGIVES) is an indisputably bold filmmaker, willing to test new waters and take audiences into dark and dream-like settings.

His latest, THE NEON DEMON, is one of his least accessible films. It’s far from perfect and nowhere near Refn’s best work, but it is still worthy of appreciation if you enter the theater with the right expectations.

Like ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn establishes a laconic pace early on for the story, which will unquestionably bore some viewers. You may even hear yawns and restless shuffling in the audience. Surreal images float dreamily across the screen, with long passages of the film rendered with little dialogue, letting Cliff Martinez’s haunting musical score and Refn’s visuals to convey the full story.

The first image of NEON DEMON shows an aspiring young model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) covered in blood from her neck to the floor. Though quickly revealed as part of an extreme fashion shoot, this opening serves as a visual warning for the wicked journey Refn has planned. Our first glimpse of Jesse sets the ominous tone Refn wishes to project in our minds.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a runaway looking for her big break. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a runaway looking for her big break. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Fanning (MALEFICENT) gives a captivating turn as Jesse, a 16-year-old runaway (who plays 19) trying to make it big in Los Angeles. Her youth and beauty are so influential that they begin to work to her favor almost immediately on her arrival. But more than that, Jesse’s stunning features seem to encapsulate and draw in those around her, while repelling her peers (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote).

Jena Malone (THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE) as Ruby is easily one of the more stimulating characters in the film. She’s a makeup artist who befriends Jesse as soon as she arrives in town. When she’s not applying cosmetics to the prettiest faces that have ever walked the runway, she’s a mortuary makeup artist. Know that you will be downright shocked by some of her actions. (You have been warned.)

As you probably guessed by now, NEON DEMON focuses primarily on women. Although there are a handful of male characters — such as Keanu Reeves as a jerk of a motel owner and Desmond Harrington (DEXTER) playing a creepy photographer — the femininity serves as the core of the film. The focus on women extends into the crew as well, most notably with the talented cinematographer Natasha Braier (THE ROVER).

Abbey Lee is Sarah in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Abbey Lee is Sarah in THE NEON DEMON. Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

THE NEON DEMON is constructed with the considerable technical virtuosity we have come to expect of Refn’s career. It boasts a visual style in which each frame could belong on your wall. Refn and Braier expertly use lighting, color and creeping camera movement to maximum effect, making the film fascinating to watch even at its languid pace.

The ultimate issue with the film is the sheer number of scenes imbued with intrigue — including one scene with a cougar locked in a motel room — yet abandoned without closure to keep the film fluid. The individual pieces are intoxicating, but there is no sense of thread to hold them together. Expectations are key however, as Refn doesn’t concern himself with traditional narrative constructs; rather, he evokes feeling with provocative images, and you had better believe you’re going to walk away disturbed.

Though the film misses some of its marks, NEON DEMON will be remembered as a great experiment gone somewhat askew. Rather than adopt cheap clichés and formula like so many other filmmakers, Refn embraces complex themes to tell an astounding original story. It’s not the be-all, end-all Refn film that we could hope for, but it has much to offer to the patient viewer.

Grade: B

THE NEON DEMON opens on Friday, June 24.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.