The Neon Demon, the latest film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, opened on over 780 screens across the US last Friday (June 24). But The Neon Demon, unlike A24’s strongly marketed The Witch, tanked at the box office this past weekend. It ranked 15th (two slots above Angry Birds) and only brought in an estimated $606,564. I can’t say that was unexpected. After all, the film is a gruesome and obtuse arthouse picture with a profoundly divided critical response. It lacked the spirited marketing push and festival buzz that carried The Witch to relative financial success. The Witch got raves at Sundance. The Neon Demon was as booed at Cannes, just like Refn’s previous film.
But that film, Only God Forgives, slowly became a source of heated debate after its US release. Critics with an appreciation for exploitation cinema and poor taste lauded the film for its trashy sense of humor, lurid cinematography, and wicked performances. The Neon Demon is very similar in those respects but manages to be funnier, just as beautiful, and even more wicked. I don’t think that’ll help The Neon Demon find a larger audience, but I do believe that it helps make the movie a superb example of trash cinema.
The film is about a power struggle between young, ambitious women in the L.A. fashion scene. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old southern belle who’s just hopped off the bus and into her first contract with a big shot modeling agency. She soon meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a talented make-up artist who moonlights in a mortuary, dolling up the dead. Ruby and Jesse form a fast friendship, but Ruby’s other model friends (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, both great) are immediately envious of Jesse’s ethereal beauty.
The power play between these young women is fascinating to watch, even through Refn’s occasionally annoying penchant for longer pauses between lines in dialogue scenes. In some scenes, the delay between lines works wonders — he allows us to focus on the movement of their eyes as the women try to figure out the shifting power dynamic between them. He allows us to see them thinking and choosing their words carefully. It doesn’t work in every scene, but when it works it focuses and amplifies the conflict.
Though all of the principal female cast are turning in great performances, Jena Malone is the clear standout of the bunch. The odd roles really bring out the best in her, and this role goes places that push the boundaries of taste and audience comfort. She’s utterly fearless. Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, and Alessandro Nivola also show up in the film, their roles small but impactful.
Also packing tremendous impact is the film’s look. It’s a designer movie: each shot lit to absolute perfection, every set and costume expertly chosen or crafted. For all its ugliness and violence, every second looks splendid on the screen. This flick is hipster horror at its most beautiful, showing us a different side of L.A. that we’ve almost caught glimpses of in Starry Eyes, Nightcrawler, and Mulholland Drive. I’m talking about the L.A. that eats people alive.
For a film as weird and intimate as The Neon Demon, getting released on nearly 800 screens nationwide is a victory. It’s also a win for independent cinema. It tells us that hipster horror films like The Witch, It Follows, and Green Room have found some small foothold in theaters across the US. Despite low box office returns and mixed reactions from audiences, hipster horror has made the jump from video-on-demand services to your local cineplexes.
And if this trend of hipster horror continues, will we see the development of a larger audience for The Neon Demon and its ilk? Films like it occupy a niche that has gone long unfilled in our nation’s theaters, and adult horror audiences might be looking for something a bit different from the average American horror film. And with an ever-increasing web presence for independent films, fans will know when and where to find these films.
We must remember that even though it bombed hard in theaters and didn’t win huge critical acclaim, we can’t underestimate the value of weird cinema like The Neon Demon. It’s movies like this one that will inspire the filmmakers of tomorrow. Some of today’s most valued filmmakers are connoisseurs of exploitation, like Tarantino. They take poor taste and elevate it to high art. And while Refn’s trash art isn’t as palatable, we must also understand that most art is not made for the masses, and that’s okay. But our future filmmakers will be into this fringe stuff now, which means that The Neon Demon is a drop in the pond that will ripple outward for years.