The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Neon Demon

Sometimes the best way to put audiences in the preferred mindset for your movie is to remind them of another one: Steven Spielberg made alien encounters heartwarming by presenting E.T. as a space-age spin on generational memories of “boy and his dog” stories like Old Yeller and Lassie. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive plays like a ghost story even though the only thing its characters seem to be “haunted” by is guilt. Jan deBont’s Twister frames its tornadoes like the rampaging behemoths of a Godzilla movie, which not only makes them more exciting but also subtly wedges “tornados = monsters” in the audience’s subconscious just enough that they’re less skeptical about the heroes seemingly being chased down by the titular cyclones as though weather can have an agenda.

Movies have been making references to one another for about as long as there’s been more than one movie, but the home video age (and the proliferation of television before it) kicked the art of genre-appropriation into high gear. Whereas filmmakers used to exercise homage as tribute or just for an inside joke, television and film rental created a shared pop-consciousness of reference points that not only changed the way audiences talk about entertainment, but also gave filmmakers a powerful new tool for manipulating expectations: Drawing on these same visual cues (camera angles, musical styles, familiar genre cliches) as a shortcut to putting audiences in a certain frame of mind.

It’s also a favorite plaything of a subset of films that tend to make waves on the “arthouse” circuit, where tropes are bluntly appropriated in order to drive home a point through self-consciously clever juxtaposition: “Why yes, our film about organized religion does look and sound like a zombie movie – think about it, won’t you?” Director Nicholas Winding Refn is clearly a student of such fare, but as befits a filmmaker who enthusiastically donned the mantle of the indie scene’s slickest prankster, he likes to subvert the subversion with genre films disguised as “arthouse takes” on genre films. This punchline was first pulled in Drive, where Ryan Gosling’s nameless protagonist seems so obviously a parody of action heroes in the Diesel/Statham mold (righteous, monosyllabic, clad in a ridiculous scorpion jacket, super-skilled with cars, fighting and seemingly nothing else) that it plays like a twist when he actually starts being one.

neon demon How The Neon Demon Plays With Audience Expectations

Now, in The Neon Demon, Refn has taken this mischievous sleight of hand to a new level; what looks on the surface like an exercise in “thinkpiece”-mongering – mining horror movie tropes for wry commentary on the world of fashion – instead reveals… well, something that provoked equal parts applause and boos at Cannes and reports of horrified walk-outs at U.S. previews, for starters. Refn may be offering a cinematic variation on one of those naughty jokes where the punchline is nested in the setup, but in the telling he unveils a contraption that’s either an absurdist black comedy or a ghoulish horror film yet makes (narrative) sense as both:

The story is at first your basic cautionary tale for young women in show business a’la A Star Is Born (or Showgirls, a comparison Refn would almost certainly welcome). Elle Fanning is Jessie, a starry-eyed ingenue who turns up in Los Angeles looking to become a model. Gifted with beauty in precisely the mold currently most prized on the scene, everyone she meets is immediately obsessed with her: Makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) falls in love at first sight. The modeling agency head (Christina Hendricks) proclaims her the next big thing in her first interview. A famed designer (Alessandro Nivola) either nearly breaks down sobbing or has an orgasm (both?) after taking one look. And a pair of models who trail about after Ruby like a mother hen – Gigi (Bella Heathcote), a porcelain plastic-surgery addict, and Sarah (Abbey Lee) a self-consciously “aging” example of last-cycle’s ideal – eye her with ravenous envy. You’ve heard this story before, and The Neon Demon knows it.

It also knows you’ve seen this story and heard the lesson it usually espouses, often as heavy-handed metaphor. So at first, the fact that the film’s palette is saturated with horror movie imagery in general and vampire movie cues in particular almost feels entirely expected: “Oh, of course,” the genre-savvy viewer thinks, “The fashion business is obsessed with eternal youth, seduces and consumes beauty and purity to feed itself, etc.; of course vampirism is the go-to metaphor.” And true to form, the aesthetic is awash in the familiar trappings of modern bloodsucker features from the carefully composed tableaus that make the L.A. night scene feel somehow more comfortable than daylight to the overwhelming 80s-style synth score from Cliff Martinez. It’s a vampire pop-ephemera stew seasoned with allusions to everything from Tony Scott’s The Hunger to Jesús Franco’s Vamypros Lesbos to Brahm Stoker’s Dracula – even a gothed-up night club that could’ve been plucked wholesale from the Blade movies.

Vampire Movies How The Neon Demon Plays With Audience Expectations

In this context, it’s almost obligatory that Ruby’s day job is applying funeral makeup, or that she lives in an abandoned-looking mansion full of old decor and taxidermied animals – or that she can’t offer a straight answer as to how she came to reside there. Jessie’s call-up to a prestigious gig triggers visions of being “overtaken” by a sinister doppleganger sharing a three-way kiss with a pair of her own reflections? Not exactly subtle. Ditto visions of ghostly fingers stretching out from her motel wall a’la A Nightmare on Elm Street, or an intruder in that same motel room turning out to be a mountain lion. By the time Jessie accidentally slices her hand open and Sarah tries to lap up the blood, well… you’d be forgiven for thinking that the movie has surpassed any semblance of subtlety.

But then Act 3 rolls around and the following things happen. Jessie is compelled to flee to Ruby’s spooky house by a prophetic nightmare of sexual assault. Ruby, her advances rebuffed, has explicit sex with a female corpse while imagining it as Jessie. Ruby, Gigi and Sarah gang up on Jessie, murder her and bathe in her blood Countess Bathory-style; the very next scene featuring Ruby lounging in a bathtub of the stuff watching Gigi and Sarah lap the remainder of it off each other in the shower. Ruby takes a (literal) dirt nap in an open grave, and Gigi and Sarah – their youthfulness seemingly restored – are once again mesmerizing photographers at a shoot… at least until a guilt-wracked Gigi vomits up Jessie’s eyeball and commits hara-kiri with fabric shears.

In terms of nasty twists, starting out like an E! Network riff on Black Swan and ending like an episode of Hannibal is somewhere between devious and deranged. The film is a spring-loaded psychological trap designed to needle genre-savvy veterans and casual moviegoers alike; and whether one perceives it to “work” or not the craftsmanship is something to behold – not necessarily in the details, but in how they hold together. It’s one thing to surprise an audience by veering off into a gorefest, but quite another to construct a narrative apparatus whereby such an finale not only makes sense within its own logic, but stands sturdy whether regarded literally or as parable.

neon demon elle fanning jena malone How The Neon Demon Plays With Audience Expectations

Tracking back through the story in the context of metaphor after experiencing the finale, the plot-sequencing is clear in its intent: A black comedy condemning the fashion business by drawing parallels (through cinematic-allusion) between the story of a girl entering it and the familiar seduction-narrative of vampire movies; climaxing (as it must) with the metaphor becoming cartoonishly explicit – the business is so thirsty for Jessie’s innocence and so deforms those it passes over that her rivals are only satiated by literally gnawing the flesh off her bones in a cannibalistic lesbian blood-orgy.

On the other hand, if one reads the “twist” literally (as in: Ruby is an actual vampire), the machinery still hangs together. Something is “off” about Ruby, to say nothing of her relationship with Sarah and Gigi. Two supermodels in vague “thrall” to their makeup girl. The tomb-like house she seems to haunt rather than inhabit. The grave. Her ability to appear wherever Jessie happens to be. It adds up pretty consistently. Are the hands reaching out from the motel walls her will grasping out for Jessie? Did she compel the cougar to invade the room? Was she the cougar? Come to think of it, Jessie flees the motel for Ruby’s fearing her rapacious landlord (Keanu Reeves) is about to break in – but we never see that it’s really him. There’s also the first time the four women are together, where the discussion turns to lipstick colors being named to evoke food or sex, which leads Ruby to question Jessie’s makeup preferences in what turn out to be prophetic terms: “Are you food – or are you sex?”

Authorial intent or not, audiences who wish to forego considerations of metaphor and instead imbibe The Neon Demon as a horror movie about a girl who draws the attention of a vampiress who, when rejected, makes a meal of her instead will find it more than serviceable as exactly that; while those who want to see an over-the-top fashion satire will find the same amount of credence in a film that seems to relish not offering a definitive answer. Critics and audiences will decide for themselves whether all this meticulous absurdity actually makes Refn’s latest arthouse carnival-act a good movie or not, but in terms of genre-bending storytelling gymnastics what he’s presented is a master class in how to have your metaphor and – well… eat it, too.

The Neon Demon is now playing in select theaters.

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