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The Neon Demon is like a grim, psychological horror version of Mean Girls

I’m a Nicolas Winding Refn fan. Even before the explosive critical success of Drive, I was fully onboard with what the Danish writer-director brings to the table from his work on the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and, my personal favorite, Valhalla Rising. But with his most recent film, The Neon Demon starring Elle Fanning, he’s hit another gear. All of the director’s stylized, visceral violence arrives intact, but as opposed to his previous, dude-centric work, The Neon Demon is a decidedly feminine tale and take on the grim, hyper-real world in which the director chooses to set his works.

Part of this is, of course, due to the very premise of the film, which is set within the high-stakes world of professional female models. The flick follows Elle Fanning, a doe-eyed recent arrival in Los Angeles, on her journey to become a full-fledged supermodel, no matter the cost. From a director best known for documenting Viking brutality in Valhalla Rising, providing a star-making platform for Tom Hardy as infamous British thug Charles Bronson, and turning Ryan Gosling into a stone-faced killer criminal twice over, this is quite already quite a departure.

Everything else about Refn’s approach, though? The violence? The lurid imagery? The surreal plot turns? It’s all here, but filtered through the lens of female experience in a way that makes it entirely new. The Neon Demon is like a grim, psychological horror version of Mean Girls. In Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives, and even Drive, the terror and tension that the audience feels for the film’s protagonists comes from a very masculine sense of “These two bulls are going to butt heads sooner or later,” but the horror cultivated by The Neon Demon is much more subtle in nature, as the women that Elle Fanning’s character meets don’t want to destroy her through straightforward means. Rather, they aim to whittle away at her confidence and value, competing with one another through social means rather than physical ones, at least initially.

This stands in stark contrast to the approaches of the men in The Neon Demon, all of whom are either predators or patsies, sneering villains or dopes who mistakenly believe themselves to be in a position of power. What’s really fascinating about the men in the film is that even at their most vile and sinister, they merely want to use Elle Fanning and the other women around them, to get something from them. But the women of The Neon Demon? They don’t just want something from their rivals, they actually want to hollow them out and consume what’s left.

What makes this all truly terrifying is that the women of The Neon Demon, with their perfectly composed, heavily made-up faces, are impossible to read. When the men of the film appear on screen, it is immediately clear who and what they are: Irritable, violent sociopath; well-meaning but self-interested hayseed; arrogant, myopic manipulator. And, significantly, all of these initial impressions are correct, despite Refn’s teases at the contrary and the audience’s desire to see those expectations subverted. The men of The Neon Demon are shallow creatures, lacking in subtlety, for whom violence is only a surface trait, a straightforward expression of their simplistic, savage desires.

The women of The Neon Demon, however, are all subtlety and churning machinations. They use violence –sexual and otherwise — not as an end in and of itself, but as a tool to get that which they truly desire. This makes them decidedly more complex and infinitely more dangerous, as it’s impossible to tell what any of the women — including Elle Fanning — is really thinking, what they truly desire, and what their plans ultimately entail.


And just like how Refn uses and manipulates audience expectations of how the men in his films should behave — especially an absolutely fantastic Keanu Reeves–he does the same with the female characters. But unlike the men, who surprise audiences in their failure to reveal any further depths, nearly every woman in the film goes through a clear arc in which they are revealed to be more devious, more Machiavellian, smarter, and more capable than they first seemed. Even Christina Hendricks, though she only appears in a single scene, is slyly introduced as a stern, but sympathetic mother figure, only to be later revealed as a cynical, calculating operator, eager to grind up the human livestock that arrives daily upon her doorstep.

It’s smart, heady stuff, and far deeper than it might appear at first glance. Refn uses all of our gendered preconceived notions about his work, the actors and actresses he employs, the characters he presents, and the world he aims to depict. He combines these elements to set up expectations for how the rest of his film will play. But, at every turn, he subverts those expectations, reveling in the disorientation caused by them, and using that complexity to explore themes, emotions, and desires that aren’t just feminine, but human in nature.

Like all of Refn’s work, The Neon Demon isn’t for everyone. In fact, it might not even be for most people, as it eschews realism in favor of spectacle, delights in discomfort, and would rather show you something interesting than develop the standard plot progression that most major films adhere to. But if you’re willing to give yourself over to the world that Refn creates, if you’re willing to accept the steep buy-in of the director’s Los Angeles — by turns surreal and hyper-real–then the payoff is absolutely delicious.

Aubrey Sitterson is a Los Angeles-based writer, whose most recent work is the Street Fighter x G.I. Joe comic series from IDW Publishing, available at your local comic shop or digitally on Comixology. Find him on Twitter or check out his website for more information.

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