The Neon Demon is a 2016 psychological horror film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Refn, and starring Elle Fanning. The plot follows an aspiring model in Los Angeles whose beauty and youth generate intense fascination and jealousy within the industry. Supporting roles are played by Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves.
An international co-production between France, Denmark, and the United States, the film competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the third consecutive film directed by Refn to do so, following Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013). In the United States, the film was released theatrically on 24 June 2016 by Amazon Studios and Broad Green Pictures. It opened to polarized reviews and was a box office failure, grossing a little over $3 million from a $7 million budget.
Sixteen-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved from small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. Her first photoshoot is done by Dean (Karl Glusman). She meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces fellow older models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The three women are intrigued by Jesse's natural beauty, as well as curious about her sexual proclivities. Jesse feigns experience in the latter.
Jesse gets signed by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), the owner of a modelling agency, who tells her to pretend she is nineteen and refers her to a test shoot with a notable photographer, Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). Jesse goes on a date with Dean, but keeps his advances at bay. She returns to her motel room to find it ransacked and occupied by a feline resembling a cougar but roaring like a big cat. The unsavory manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves), demands that she pay for the damages. Jesse goes to the photo shoot with Jack, who calls for a closed set and covers her naked body in gold paint. The shoot is successful, and Gigi and Sarah begin envying Jesse's youth, while Ruby is fascinated with her.
Jesse goes to a casting call for fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola), where Sarah is also present. He pays no attention to Sarah but is entranced by Jesse. A distraught Sarah flees into a bathroom and shatters the mirror with anger and when Jesse enters, Sarah asks her how it feels to be the one who everyone admires. Jesse admits, "It's everything." Sarah lunges toward her, and Jesse accidentally cuts her hand on glass. Sarah immediately sucks the blood from Jesse's hand. Jesse rushes back to her motel, and faints, hallucinating strange images. Dean arrives, pays Hank for the damage to her room, and treats Jesse's wound. During their short interchange, Hank reveals a sexually predatory streak, gleans Dean's unrequited interest in Jesse and tries to attract Dean's attention to a 13-year old runaway girl whose room may be next to Jesse's.
At Sarno's fashion show, Gigi tells Jesse about all the work she has had done, and expresses disbelief that Jesse has not used casting couches to achieve success. As Jesse is closing the show, she sees a vision of the glowing triangle she saw before in her hallucination, and kisses her reflection inside a prism. After the show, a visibly-changed Jesse goes out with Dean to a bar. There, Sarno denigrates women who have cosmetic surgery, using a humiliated Gigi as an example. In contrast, he praises Jesse's natural looks and declares that "beauty isn't everything; it's the only thing." Dean challenges this view and tries to convince Jesse to leave, but she rejects him, now displaying a narcissistic new persona.
Jesse has a nightmare of Hank forcing her to sexually swallow a knife. She wakes up in time to hear someone fidgeting with her door lock. She quickly turns the lock, but is forced to listen as the intruder instead breaks into her neighbor's room and assaults her. Terrified, she calls Ruby, who tells her to come over. Ruby then tries to initiate sex with her, but Jesse rejects her, revealing herself to be a virgin in the process. Upset, Ruby draws a diagram on her mirror and leaves for her second job as a makeup artist for a morgue. There, she pleasures herself with a female corpse.
Ruby returns home and finds Jesse now unabashed in her narcissism. Jesse is attacked by Gigi and Sarah, who chase her with knives. Ruby suddenly pushes Jesse into a huge empty swimming pool. Jesse is fatally wounded, her leg broken, her head gushing blood. The three women approach her with knives. Ruby is then seen in a bath full of Jesse's blood; Sarah and Gigi are washing blood off in the shower. The next day, Ruby's topless body shows occult tattoos as she waters flowers outside and washes Jesse's blood off the pool. She later lies in Jesse's unmarked grave as part of a ritual that culminates in her moonlit living room, when a torrent of blood gushes from Ruby's genitals.
The next day, Sarah drives Gigi to Jack's photoshoot. Sarah nonchalantly states to the other model scheduled to be in the shoot that she once ate a girl who "screw[ed her] out of a job", visibly disturbing Gigi. Jack is suddenly enthralled with Sarah and asks her to replace the other model, to which she agrees with a knowing smile. In the midst of the shoot, Gigi feels ill and leaves. Sarah follows her and watches Gigi vomit up one of Jesse's eyeballs. She screams with regret, "I need to get her out of me", and stabs her own stomach with a pair of scissors, cutting open her abdomen. Sarah watches Gigi die, drools, eats the regurgitated eyeball and leaves to return to the set.
Credits roll as a woman, who looks and dresses like Sarah but does not show her face to the camera, walks alone in the Mojave Desert outside of Amboy in a scene reminiscent of Refn's Gucci advert featuring Blake Lively. Whether this epilogue is meant to be symbolic or an actual photoshoot involving Sarah, is left open to speculation.