“The Neon Demon” is a queer horror film with a true lesbian villain

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Warning: This review contains massive spoilers and a discussion of graphic violence against women. Seriously. Also a few NSFW images.

Before its release, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon had already proven to be controversial and divisive. It was reportedly booed by the press at Cannes, while the later audience gave it a seven-minute standing ovation. Clare Foges of The Daily Mail even called for it to be banned without having seen it. The Washington Times described it as “depraved” and called it “smut,” while the New York Times labeled it “puerile” and “offensive.” What you should know going into this review is that for me, those are positives. When it comes to entertainment, I am foremost a horror fan with fairly dark tastes. Calling a movie “depraved,” or “puerile” is an indicator that I’ll probably like it.

And I did.

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This film certainly isn’t going to be everyone’s tastes. I’ll be blunt here: if you don’t like lesbians as villains, you won’t like it. If you require that LGBT-themed films have happy endings and entirely positive, un-problematic characters who do no wrong whatsoever, you won’t like it. If you don’t like dark themes, you won’t make it past the first 20 minutes. Think of it like Black Swan with a heavy dose of camp thrown in. This is a horror movie, which requires that there be horrible people doing horrible things. It’s a woman-centric film in which all the women are destructive, power-hungry narcissists and all the men (except for one, and even that one’s arguable) are out to exploit these women, whom they see as mere objects. It is, in short, not a pleasant film.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an underage orphan with dreams of becoming a model in LA. With her sweet, innocent looks and timid personality, she seems destined to be a victim in the industry. Her career begins to take off with the assistance of mortuary makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and a designer (Alessandro Nivola) who becomes transfixed by her amateur grace.

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Jesse inadvertently makes enemies of Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), two models who can’t seem to get their big break no matter how much plastic surgery they have or how much they starve themselves. Also posing clear, sexually exploitative threats to our doe-eyed ingenue are Hank (Keanu Reeves), a motel manager who encourages Jesse’s wannabe photographer boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) to seek sex with a 13-year-old, and Jack (Desmond Harrington), a high fashion photographer who seems to hate the models even as he desires them. The fashion world of The Neon Demon exposes and even lampoons the industry as a glittery, glamorous wasteland populated entirely by the wicked.

The film presents an interesting conundrum, however, for LGBT viewers. It delves into lesbianism early but subtly. It’s clear from the start that Ruby is attracted to Jesse, a fact the inexperienced and seemingly naive girl seems not to notice. Ruby establishes herself not only as an ally but a protector for Jesse—or so it seems.

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In reality, Ruby is just as terrible as the men who prey on the models and emerges as the arch villain in the film’s climax. Her desire for Jesse is part erotic and part envious, and we soon realize that what she wants is to possess Jesse as fully as possible. Her desire to control and own Jesse reaches its first disturbing height when she begins to sexually assault her (after, no less, Jesse hears Hank raping another young girl). When Jesse fends off the attack, Ruby goes to the morgue, where she has sex with a corpse that resembles Jesse. That early press wasn’t exaggerating: there is indeed a prolonged necrophilia scene.

Ruby returns home to find Jesse exalting her own superior beauty like a mad despot. But Ruby has a trick up her sleeve. No sooner does Jesse ascend to her own narcissistic throne than Gigi and Sarah attack her, and along with Ruby, kill her. The final two scenes reveal that the trio has eaten Jesse’s body, possessing her to a horrifying extreme.

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As I said, it’s not a pleasant film.

To address the film from a queer perspective, we might feel disappointed that the trope of the psychotic lesbian has reared its head again. Other horror films like Haute Tension (2003) imagine that lesbians who can’t act on their desire are naturally murderers. Ruby becomes a trope within a trope when, after killing Jesse, she lies in a bathtub covered in blood and voyeuristically watches Gigi and Sarah bathe. With the film’s previous (and later) depictions of blood-drinking, Ruby here seems to be yet another sapphic allusion to Countess Erzsébet Báthory. The gay woman, whom we would hope would comfort the young Jesse in her time of need, is the person who ends up harming her the most.

On the other hand, Ruby’s actions are part of the greater narrative: in this poisonous Hollywood scene, everyone wants to hurt Jesse. She has no allies, no saviors. Ruby fulfills this horrible premise well, thanks to Jena Malone’s skillful performance. She’s a villain, but she’s a good villain. She is a master manipulator who, despite her girlish friendliness, knows exactly how this city works. The film unsettles the audience with the constant danger of violence against women and Ruby is an active participant within that danger. After several uncomfortable moments of hoping I wasn’t about to see Jesse harmed by Hank or Jack, Ruby is the one who carries the threat out. She scared me a little, and that’s no small feat.

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LGBT viewers who enjoy disturbing movies will be faced with a problem in The Neon Demon. Do we roll our eyes at the tropes depicted, or do we accept them for their camp value? Do we see Ruby as an insult to our identity or a villain who is actually frightening, as a horror villain needs to be? From my personal experience as both a queer woman and a devout horror fan, Ruby is a force to be reckoned with. I deplored her actions, but she was what she needed to be—surprising, complicated, and appalling.

The Neon Demon is stylish but problematic, as many horror movies are. Some viewers, especially LGBT ones, may not be able to stomach its subject matter or its engagement with psychotic lesbians. Others, especially those who like dark films, creepy female villains, and/or cool makeup, may find that it hits the spot. Either way, it’s going to give LGBT viewers something to talk about.

The Neon Demon is in theaters now.

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