It is tempting to compare NEON DEMON to STARRY EYES, but I think that would sell both films short. Both films deal with the predatory nature of fame and are strong visually, but they each have their focus. The lead in STARRY EYES, Sarah, understands what she has to sacrifice and does it willingly. But there is, at least in the beginning, a genuine naïveté and original drive about her.
NEON DEMON’s lead character, Jesse (Elle Fanning) plays the innocent and naive small-town girl come to Hollywood, but I don’t buy it. From the beginning of the film, when she’s talking to make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and wiping the fake blood off her body, I feel she knows exactly how she wants to be perceived to get what she wants. Something about the jaded look in her eyes and the small secret smiles says she understands the predatory urge she evokes in everyone around her and feeds off of it. However, she also underestimates it.
Jesse is definitely choice bait in the midst of circling sharks. In the opening scene, we see her lying on a couch, posed for a photo shoot, with a fake throat gash and blood spilling onto the floor. Her photographer boyfriend Dean (Karl Gusman) stands in the shadows, leering at her. It’s a creepy moment, right from the start. Ruby and her model friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), salivate over Jesse in lust and jealousy. Ruby remarks that people are either sex or food. They agree that Jesse is food; she is dessert. Even Nature is sniffing her out; she comes home to find a cougar in her hotel room. The hotel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) seems to be the only one who really sees her, as sleazy as he is; he refers to her as “real hard candy.”
Refn wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Mary Lewis and Polly Stenham. Cinematographer Natasha Braier and Art Director Austin Gorg created the look of being inside a prism with hypersaturated colors, empty spaces, and the perfect glossy look of the actors. Nothing feels solid in this film, and at times it seems vacuous.The characters are driven by their baser natures, as evidenced by a bizarre morgue scene. None of them are sympathetic.
Jesse is a prism. She absorbs everyone’s obsession and reflects it back out to them perfectly. She is a doll to be physically led around by the arm until she gets onstage. At that point, she drops the act and steps into her true persona: the one that only sees reflections of herself. There is a scene where she is surrounded by mirrors, and she kisses herself. She is unattainable and a deliberate tease, which only chums the water. The sharks eventually close in. They try to absorb her and end up spreading her poison.
The film ends with scenes of empty desert wasteland, and that is how I felt after watching it: an empty space. Not necessarily a bad thing, but disconcerting.