The Neon Demon is a Psychological Thriller written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The film stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee in the leading roles. We also see Keanu Reeves in a small but compelling part. The film is centered on a young model trying to make her mark in the fashion industry. I’m sure the climax of The Neon Demon made you go “Wait, what on earth??” and so without wasting more time, here’s the plot and ending of the film The Neon Demon explained, spoilers ahead.
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The Neon Demon: What is the film about?
As Nicolas Winding Refn, the director, explains in multiple interviews, he’s firstly an entertainer, and all of the cultish vibes you get in the film are thrown in to entertain. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that The Neon Demon is a gigantic metaphor of life in the fashion industry and of predators and prey. Let’s walk through the plot and analyze it.
What is the meaning of The Neon Demon?
Well, it is explained by the director that there might be two shades of Narcissism today. One part is highly negative, but there could be a positive side because it fuels the survival instinct. Specifically, in an industry that is all about one’s body and their looks. The Demon is Narcissism. And Neon represents the bold and the bright of the modeling industry.
The Neon Demon: Plot Explained
Deer In The Headlights
Jesse is a young model who has just begun her career and is shooting her portfolio with a guy, Dean, she met on the internet. She’s shown to be withdrawn, timid and naive. Besides, she’s not even 18 years yet and is a minor. She’s a runaway orphan, and through her childhood, Jesse assesses her self to have no real talent because she can’t sing, dance, or write. However, she knows she’s attractive and decides to make money of her good looks.
Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah
We’re introduced to Ruby, a makeup artist who is instantly infatuated by Jesse’s beauty. Apart from the fashion industry, Ruby also does make up for the dead to make them look presentable for open-casket funerals. She predicts that Jesse is new in town, and everyone likes that dazed and confused look that newbies sport. Jesse agrees to head to a party with Ruby. At the venue, Ruby introduces Jesse to Gigi and Sarah. Gigi believes that she was born with multiple flaws and is today a beautiful person because she’s fixed them surgically. Sarah is naturally good looking but is now pushing 30 and faces a lot of rejection.
Both Sarah and Gigi have their prejudices about Jesse. Sarah perhaps sees her younger self in Jesse – how she rose in the ranks overtaking all the older models in her time. She already senses that Jesse will cut through the competition like a hot knife through butter. Gigi, on the other hand, attributes Jesse’s presence in the industry to “sleeping with the right person”.
Food Or Sex?
This is a pretty vital conversation that happens between the girls. Ruby mentions that lipsticks are usually named after food or sex. She turns to Jesse and asks her is she is food or sex. Jesse lies about being with many guys, and Gigi mentions that Jesse is dessert because she’s so sweet. In a later scene, Sarah says, “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?”. The references to food are symbolic of how the industry could consume you if you aren’t careful. Also, given that it’s all about physical beauty, sexual favours are something that few use to progress in their careers.
The party presented is visually stunning but also very trippy, which resonates with the nature of clubbing and substance usage. Jesse begins to enjoy herself, and this here is representative of her induction into the social side of the industry.
An agency headed by Roberta loves the fresh look that Jesse brings and puts her on to a hotshot photographer by the name Jack MacArthur. We see the abuse of the law here when Roberta asks Jesse to say she’s 19 years. She even suggests faking a signature in the parental concent section.
Relationship with Dean
Jesse is happy to let Dean know that she’s going to be shooting professionally. Dean is curious to hear feedback for his pictures, but Jesse says it didn’t come up. But the fact of the matter is that Roberta thought they were amateurish. Jesse is trying to ensure Dean doesn’t feel bad. He also gets to know that Jesse is underage, and while initially, he jokes about leaving, he stays on as he’s interested in Jesse.
Hank, something’s in my room!
Jesse heads back to her motel run by Hank, who comes across as a scavenger who preys on young girls. In fact, he prides on his motel to be the destination for young runaways. Jesse finds a mountain lion in her room that has entered from the open window. One of the theories is that this is Ruby who’s taken the form of the animal. However, LA is one of the cities that has big cats within city limits. Regardless, this is a foreshadowing that Jesse is going to be preyed upon.
Take it all off!
Jesse goes for her shoot with Jack and meets Ruby there. Jack sends everyone out. Ruby offers to stay, but Jack forbids it. He asks Jesse to undress, and he paints her body in gold and proceeds to photograph her. The audience if left panicking for Jesse because Jack comes across as an evil dude looking to take advantage of her. But nothing of the sort happens. Ruby makes the assumption that Jesse had sex with Jack and advises her to avoid such favours. Later, Ruby meets Sarah and Gigi and tells them about the shoot, and they are visibly displeased bt Ruby is still infatuated with Jesse.
Sarah and Jesse happen to audition for the same show. When it’s Sarah’s turn, they quickly exchange some details about her in whispers, after which Robert, the fashion designer, simply ignores her altogether. It looks like there has been a prior incident that has caused some dislike for her. In any case, Robert is awestruck by Jesse soon as he lays his eyes on her. Sarah has a meltdown as she feels she has become invisible and envies Jesse. A broken mirror slices Jesse’s hands as she tries to talk to Sarah, who grabs the bloodied hand and begins to drink the blood. Obviously, Jesse freaks out and leaves.
Neon Demon: Why does Sarah try to drink Jesse’s blood in the restroom?
While a literal explanation to this is that Sarah is a witch and is trying to consume Jesse’s blood to gain her youth, which is also a foreshadowing of Sarah eating Jesse. The alternate way to look at this is Sarah is losing her mind and is becoming destructive. She wants to hurt Jesse and is having a moment of insanity.
Real Lolita Shit
Dean meets Hank to pay him for the damages done by the mountain lion. Hank gives out pedophile vibes by talking about a 13-year-old girl in one of the rooms and asks Dean to check her out. But perhaps Hank is not a pedophile, and he’s only pointing out that it is Dean, who is trying to hit it off with under-aged Jesse.
The Fashion Show
Gigi, who has also been shortlisted for the show, passes by Jesse and is surprised to see her there. Gigi’s jealousy stands out here as she calls Jesse masculine and concludes that the only reason Jesse got the gig because she’s slept with Robert. To her misery, Jesse is promoted to close the show.
The fashion show scene with triangular mirrors
In a nutshell, Jesse has just gotten her first big break, and we see her narcissistic beginnings. And this scene shows her transformation from the bashful young girl to a confident woman. The scene begins with blue lights, which represents Jesse’s gentle side. She sees an alternate, fearless version of herself who kisses her reflection, symbolizing that she’s falling in love with her bolder self. The scene then changes to red lights, which stands for being strong-willed.
The triangles could mean a bunch of things, but in this context, the three-way connect of body-mind-soul stands out. Triangles also symbolize progress and achievement of dreams, but here they are upside down and hence add the layer of decadence. Do drop in your thoughts in the comments below on what you thought.
Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!
Jesse and Dean head to a bar where Robert is with Gigi and another girl showing off his non-existent acting skills. He’s filled with so much adoration for himself, I doubt he’d have room for anyone else. Robert proceeds to insult Gigi by pointing out that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll never be beautiful. However, he commends Jesse for her true beauty. He also sneers at Dean, stating that he wouldn’t have stopped to look if Jesse weren’t pretty. Dean wants to leave, but by now, all the attention she’s been getting has made Jesse too full of herself and asks Dean to bugger off.
Open wide, wider, wider.
At night, Jesse has a dream where Hank breaks into her room and sticks a knife deep into her throat and pushes it in further. Terrified, Jesse wakes to find that someone is trying to enter her room, and after that, he proceeds to the 13-year-old’s room to assault her. While we could conclude that this is Hank, it could have been anybody really, perhaps even another dream. In any case, Jesse’s fear makes her call Ruby and flee to her place.
Jesse and Ruby
Ruby tries to get cozy with Jesse, who pushes back Ruby’s advances and says that she’s never been with anyone. This further excites Ruby, and she forces herself on Jesse and gets kicked to the floor.
Making out with the dead
Ruby displays necrophilic tendencies by having intercourse with a corpse as she imagines Jesse touching herself. While this too could be associated to a cultish behaviour, this is Ruby hitting rock bottom. Sarah and Gigi have enough hate for Jesse because they envy her. Jesse might have been protected by Ruby if she had offered sexual favours. Instead, to add insult to injury, Jesse grooms herself and stands on the diving board of an empty swimming pool, looking like a floating goddess, quoting her most narcissistic line:
Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.
This is pretty much the last straw, the trio decides to get rid of Jesse.
Neon Demon: Blood Bath Scene & the Moonlight Scene
The trio chases and corners Jesse with knives. Ruby pushes her down the empty swimming pool, and Jesse is fatally wounded. After this, they proceed to ritualistically eat Jesse and bathe in her blood. Later, we see Ruby lying under the moonlight and ejaculating what appears to be blood. We’ll get to the meaning of this scene in just a bit.
The next day, Sarah accompanies Gigi to her shoot. After seeing Sarah, the photographer replaces one of the other models with her. Unable to deal with having eaten Jesse, Gigi throws up an eye. After that, in desperation to get out the remaining Jesse, she stabs her stomach open and dies. Sarah stares with an absolute lack of empathy and eats Jesse’s eye to head back to the shoot.
Neon Demon: Ending Explained
What is the explanation of the ending of Neon Demon? What did it all mean? Well, there are two levels of interpretations – Literal and Metaphorical.
Neon Demon Ending: Literal Explanation
The literal one would be that Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi are witches. They place an offer to Jesse, in the beginning, asking her if she was food or sex. Given Jesse was not going to join the coven by having ritualistic intercourse with Ruby, she automatically becomes food. They eat her and bathe in her blood to feed off her youthfulness. Ruby, evicts Jesse’s blood from inside her to complete the ritual.
Neon Demon Ending: Metaphorical Explanation
Jesse was a naive girl who saw far too much success far too quickly. She let it get to her head and unleashed a narcissistic personality. Jesse felt that everyone was dying to be her. While this initially helped her get gigs, she eventually rubbed people the wrong way, even the ones who fancied her. As a result, she was “consumed” by the industry, thanks to her arrogance. Blood typically symbolizes open emotional wounds in dreams. If you apply that to the blood-bath scene, we can say it was a metaphor to show her enemies basking in the joy of destroying Jesse emotionally.
In The Neon Demon, we’re shown many men in the light of being predators, but ultimately, it’s the women that prey on Jesse.
That moonlight scene with Ruby is a depiction of the start of a new cycle where there now will be another newcomer, and that person may grow or be chewed up and spit out like Jesse. The rise and fall of models is cyclic, just like the moon’s cycle. If you recollect, Jesse mentions that when she was young, she thought the moon looked like an eye, and she would wonder if the moon saw her. The all-seeing eye did see her rise and fall. And menstruation, which is the eviction of the old eggs to make way for new, is also cyclic.
What did you think about the ending? What is your viewpoint? Do comment below.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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