Friday, October 14, 2016

Great Horror Performances: Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

by Mike Pomaro
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a polarizing movie, and one that I love, love, love. A big reason for that is the truly wonderful performance of Elle Fanning as Jesse.

Fanning’s required to play a part that we’ve seen countless times before in movies, literature, television, and every other form of storytelling – the young, naïve, fish-out-of-water girl thrust into an environment where she’s suddenly asked to become (or at least believe she’s become) something maybe she’s not, something bigger, sexier, and sophisticated. It’s not as simple as taking off Jesse’s glasses and having her lose her ponytail; it’s a transformation from the inside out and one that is vital to the success of the movie.

“You’re going to be great.”
There’s a moment midway through The Neon Demon when Jesse is about to walk her first runway. In fact, she’s not just walking the runway; she’s closing out the show. I’ve watched enough America’s Next Top Model to know that this is a big deal. As Jesse stands backstage looking out at the runway and the invisible crowd in front of her, the camera switches to a headshot of Fanning looking back at us. She’s bathed in blue light and unsure about herself. Then the lighting switches to red and a switch goes off. On either side of her are mirrors reflecting her image back. As Cliff Martinez’s brilliant score pulsates and the camera is over cranked for a slow-mo effect, Elle turns to her reflection on her left and kisses it, then turns to her right and repeats. She then looks forward and is ready to go. When the scene started she was nervous and anxious. By the end, she was a model worthy enough to close out a famous designer’s show. NWR has a lot to do with this transformation, but so does Fanning. She tells a story with her eyes and the subtlest of smirks. She’s completed her 180-degree turn and it leaves me breathless. She’s suddenly the woman that others saw in her, and her fellow models fears are realized.

“That whole deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want.”

One of the things I admire most about this performance is Fanning’s ability to throw off the audience just enough in terms of how naïve she may really be. She’s playing a 16-year old girl from out of town, moving to Los Angles by herself and propelled into a bizarre world of superficiality that appears to be in contrast with who she is and where she’s from. Fanning, however, while playing the part in the earliest moments of the movie as someone in need of direction and help, also manages to show signs of a confidence that might suggest she’s not as innocent as we believe. There’s enough hint of mystery behind her eyes, that Jesse becomes super-compelling. Characters throughout the film, from the casting agent to the famous photographer to the even more famous fashion designer, are drawn to Jesse and see something special in her that separates her from the pack. It’s not just that Jesse is a pretty girl; they see pretty girls all day. What they see in Jesse is something not tangible, but rather something special behind the surface, and not always obvious to the audience. In front of the very people that could make or break her career, Fanning manages to walk the fine line between "ah shucks" and fierce. She’s being led this way and that, but owning it once she gets there. Is she aware of what she’s doing ahead of time or is she following orders? I’m not sure that it’s ever answered, but Fanning displays a strength at times that seems anything but learned – it’s who she is and she knows how to use it.
What makes Elle Fanning’s performance a great horror performance, for me, is simple: when she becomes fully realized as this object of beauty and desire, I find her genuinely scary. Gone is the cute little girl, taken over by someone else inhabiting her skin, or maybe a creature that was always inside. Then a moment later, the creature has fled and I’m suddenly scared for Jesse. She goes from the babe in the woods to the stalking monster, back to the babe, and back again. This tennis match between Jesse’s personalities was fun to watch, but also a left me dizzy.

When people talk positively about The Neon Demon, it’s usually in regards to the aesthetics and the Cliff Martinez score. And while the visuals and music are brilliant and should be discussed and dissected until the end of time, Elle Fanning’s portrayal of Jesse is one for the ages and deserves a spot alongside NWR and Cliff Martinez.


  1. "One of the things I admire most about this performance is Fanning’s ability to throw off the audience just enough in terms of how naïve she may really be."

    This was my favorite part of the movie for sure, it also seemed to be the most original thing about it. For me, the aesthetics get a little too much shine in comparison to what Elle brings to the table. Movies with girls behaving like they're in a coven are a plenty, but how Neon Demon plays with the shift from good to evil is geeeenius.

    Great write up!

  2. Interesting - I haven't seen it yet and mixed reviews (and the fact I really disliked Only God Forgives which probably isn't fair) have kept me from hurrying to do so but if my brother from another possessed supermodel likes it this much, I am in!

  3. Very interesting post here. I actually felt like Fanning was the weakest link in this movie; very bland and basic, but I suppose her character was meant to be? Jena Malone stole the show for me, as well as Abbey Lee.

  4. Excellent article. Her transformation is subtle and is easily lost in the outrageousness of everything around her. But we all know Alessandro Nivola stole the show ("Your name is BEAN?" is the biggest laugh in any movie this year). Love this movie and this performance.

  5. A new Mike article! I knew this day would once again come! And of course, you pick my favorite movie of the year. I completely agree that she gets third billing to the cinematography and score but she is amazing. They're like 1a, 1b and 1c. I loved the club scene where she was being eyed by the two models. She stares at them then looks back at Jena Malone and they laugh while beat thumps. It seemed so genuine and perfect. Great article Mr. Pomaro.