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 June 24, 2016 by Amazon Studios and Broad Green Pictures. It opened to polarized reviews, and ultimately grossed a little over $3 million against a $7 million budget.
Sixteen-year-old aspiring model Jesse has just moved from small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. Her first photoshoot is done by Dean. She meets makeup artist Ruby, who introduces fellow older models Sarah and Gigi. 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, 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. 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 mountain lion. The unsavory manager, Hank, demands that she pay for the damages. Jesse goes to the photo shoot with Jack, who 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, where Sarah is also present. He pays no attention to Sarah but is entranced by Jesse. A distraught Sarah asks her how it feels to be the one 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. Hank reveals a sexually predatory streak 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 cosmetic surgery 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. 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. 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 left to listen as the intruder breaks into the next room and assaults the female occupant. Terrified, she calls Ruby, who tells her to come over. Ruby tries to initiate sex with her, but Jesse rejects her, revealing herself to be a virgin. Upset, Ruby draws a diagram on her mirror and leaves for her second job as a makeup artist at 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. Ruby pushes Jesse into a huge empty swimming pool, killing her. 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. Later, Ruby is revealed to have occult tattoos. She lies in Jesse's unmarked grave as part of a ritual that culminates in her living room, when a torrent of blood gushes from her genitals.
The next day, Sarah drives Gigi to one of Jack's photoshoots. As Gigi and another model named Annie gets their makeup done, Sarah quietly hears Annie talking to her makeup artist about her friend who nonchalantly states to Annie scheduled to be in the shoot that she once ate a girl who messed up her job, disturbing Gigi as she realizes what they've done. The other model, Annie, doesn't think twice and laughs as she believes it's a joke. Jack wanders to the living room in the middle of the shoot and is suddenly enthralled with Sarah and asks her to replace the other model. Sarah nods and smiles with pride as Jack fires Annie on the spot. In the midst of the shoot, Gigi feels ill and leaves. Sarah 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, eats the regurgitated eyeball, disassociated tears falling from her eyes as she walks off into the sunset.
On November 3, 2014, Refn's production company Space Rocket Nation alongside its co-financiers Gaumont Film Company and Wild Bunch announced that Refn's next film would be titled The Neon Demon, to be filmed in Los Angeles in early 2015.
In January 2015, Dazed reported that the script for the film was inspired by Elizabeth Báthory. In discussing the script, which Refn co-wrote with Mary Laws, he stated: "I decided that I’d made enough films about violent men, and I wanted to do a film with only women in the film, and so I did this story because my wife would only go to L.A. if we had to travel out of Copenhagen. She’s like, ‘I’m done with Asia. I will only do Los Angeles.’ And so I came up with an idea and went to L.A., and I cast this woman called Elle Fanning who is absolutely fantastic, and she played the lead."
On January 6, 2015, Elle Fanning joined the film to play an aspiring model, caught in a world of beauty and demise. On January 29, Abbey Lee Kershaw was added to the cast to play the role of Sarah. On February 5, more cast was added to the film, including Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone and Bella Heathcote. On March 17, 2015, Karl Glusman was set to star in the film. Desmond Harrington was added to the cast on March 30, 2015.
Principal photography on the film began in Los Angeles on March 30, 2015.
Composer Cliff Martinez, who collaborated with director Refn on Drive, stated the films have similar styles, musically speaking, noting that for The Neon Demon he sought a "sparse electronic score." He stated in an interview that the first half of the film resembles "a melodrama like Valley of the Dolls, and the second half is like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." The soundtrack is strongly reminiscent of '70s and '80s electronic music, especially (by Refn's and Martinez's own admission) Giorgio Moroder, Goblin, Kraftwerk, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.
The soundtrack for the film was released on June 24, 2016, physically and through digital download, before being released on vinyl on July 8, 2016, by Milan Records. Sia composed an original song for the film titled "Waving Goodbye". On May 24, 2016 at the Cannes Soundtrack 2016 awards, Cliff Martinez was recognized best composer of the Cannes film festival for his soundtrack to The Neon Demon.
In November 2015, Amazon Studios acquired distribution rights to the film in the United States, in partnership with Broad Green Pictures. The Jokers will distribute the film in France. Scanbox Entertainment distributed the film in Denmark.
The film had its world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2016, before it was released in France on June 8, 2016. The film was then released in Denmark on June 9, followed by the United States on June 24, 2016.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 27, 2016.
The Neon Demon received a mixed response from critics. Much like Refn's previous film, Only God Forgives, the film received both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at Cannes Film Festival. It holds a 57% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 214 reviews, with an average rating of 5.9/10. The site's consensus reads, "The Neon Demon is seductively stylish, but Nicolas Winding Refn's assured eye can't quite compensate for an underdeveloped plot and thinly written characters." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 51 out of 100, based on 45 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave the film five out of five stars, stating, "When the film reaches its logical end point, Refn just keeps pushing, and eventually lands on a sequence so jaw-dropping – almost certainly a sly, glossy-magazine refashioning of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's groundbreaking surrealist short Un Chien Andalou – that all you can do is howl or cheer." Tirdad Derakhshani, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, called Refn a "bold visionary artist... able to revel in the culture of instant gratification while also subjecting it to critique", giving the film three and a half out of four stars and calling it a "brutal masterpiece". Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald wrote positively of the film's visuals and experimental filmmaking, writing, "To complain that The Neon Demon lacks substance or that it doesn't have anything to say about our cultural obsession with beauty is to miss the crazy, cracked pageant unfolding in front of you. Not all movies are intended to be read like books; some are meant to be experienced," going on to call it a "film that is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions." He awarded the film three out of four stars.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety gave the film a mixed review: "A horror film is what The Neon Demon is (sort of). It’s set in the Los Angeles fashion world, and it’s the kind of movie in which models look like mannequins that look like slasher-film corpses, and corpses look like love objects. Beauty mingles with mangled flesh, and each fastidiously slick image seems to have come out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me or The Shining or a very sick version of a Calvin Klein commercial. Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue, every pause is so hypnotically composed, so luxuriously overdeliberate, that the audience can't help but assume that Refn knows exactly what he's doing – that he's setting us up for the kill. He is, but not if you're on the lookout for a movie that makes sense. (Oh, that.)" Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a negative review and called it "[a] stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can't wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out". Glenn Kenny of The New York Times criticized the film as "ridiculous and puerile," and opined, "Mr. Refn composes striking images, but they're all secondhand: faux Fellini, faux David Lynch and so on."
The French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma named The Neon Demon the third-best film of 2016.