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The Neon Demon and 8 of the Most Divisive Movies Ever

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Whilst Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie continues to turn heads, we look at the other films that have divided audiences over the years. 

Neon DemonTrue, The Neon Demon remains a puzzling experience to many. Hell, we still haven’t completely worked it out yet, but it’s certainly proven popular amongst the right crowds. 

It’s not the first time its director has torn apart audiences, and he’s definitely not the first person to ever do it either.

So, in celebration of such polarisation, here are eight other cases of films driving their viewers completely bonkers with their ‘tones’ and ‘symbolism’, forcing a wedge in between friendships and making us all question whether it’s us, or if certain filmmakers are just totally unhinged. 

Eraserhead (1977)

It doesn’t get much more divisive than David Lynch, the undisputed King of Crazy. We could’ve included almost any of his wacko efforts on here (bar maybe the sensationally ‘normal’ The Straight Story) but his earliest and easily most surreal work to date also remains arguably his most famous. 

You could sit here trying to work out what Eraserhead really means until the cows come home, but you’d really be doing little more than mimicking a dog chasing its own tail. 

A bizarre cavalcade of mutant babies and bleeding chickens, Lynch’s debut pretty much wrote the book on creeping audiences out. 

Lost In Translation (2003)

Not only did this unexpected sleeper hit win Sofia Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the very same year Lord of the Rings was sweeping up too) but it also banked nearly $120 million in box office receipts.

And how many of those people actually understood what they were watching?

Lost In Translation finds Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson crossing paths in Tokyo, where they share intimate conversations and… that’s really about it. It’s even an ongoing joke within the film community that nothing actually happens at all in Coppola’s film. 

It’s apparently all about little looks the characters give each other, and what the city represents. Some adore its quietness, others understandably find it infuriating.

So yeah, in a word: divisive. 

Signs (2002)

The jury’s still very much out on precisely when it was that M. Night Shyamalan first lost his mojo, but his third effort Signs is definitely a good indication of things starting to at least go a little bit awry. 

Starring pre-racist-outburst Mel Gibson and pre-bearded freakout Joaquin Phoenix, the film follows two brothers and their young family as they experience the onset of an alien invasion. It’s a little more preachy than that but you get the gist. 

Many critics came out in support of it at first; even Roger Ebert gave it his highest star rating possible but since, the acclaim has somewhat wained, particularly when the sensationally stupid Scary Movie 3 (yep, you read that right), pointed out just how silly it all is. 

Magnolia (1999)

Another somewhat ‘artsy’ director, Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t the most prolific filmmaker around, but his work always seems to turn critical heads. 

One of his most praised efforts, Magnolia boasts an all-star cast (Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman - the list is endless), chronicling the many ways in which a series of individuals are connected in their daily lives. 

In other words, a string of seemingly unrelated character studies play-off each other for 188 minutes, something ridiculously random happens, and it ends.

To some it’s crammed full of meaning, to others it’s just a waste of time. You decide. 

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

The very definition of a cult movie, Jared Hess’s Sundance hit is unlike a great deal of the other films on this list in that it’s not really that pretentious. That hasn’t stopped it from dividing audiences left, right and centre though. 

You only have to watch the tiniest clip from Napoleon Dynamite to realise just how offbeat and downright strange it all is, as Hess follows the titular teen (a young Jon Heder) on a high-school-based coming-of-age style quest. 

Twelve years on, even the critics are still undecided on this one. 

Antichrist (2009)

Another Danish director who pre-dates Refn by quite some time is of course Cannes ‘persona-non-grata’ Lars von Trier, the world-renowned madman who has broken almost every rule in the book over the years, championing everything from filming without sets (see Dogville) to even attempting to popularise porn (see: Nymphomaniac). 

Arguably the most divisive/hateful of the lot, Antichrist picked up both the award for Best Actress for Charlotte Gainsbourg at Cannes, and a special ‘anti’ award, declaring it “misogynist”.

Critics in Denmark hailed it as a masterpiece, John Waters still refers to it as one of best films of the decade, and audiences the world over continue to faint and complain en masse about its excessive violence and gore. 

The Tree of Life (2011) 

And then we come to Terrence Malick, arguably the most marmite director on planet Earth. His multi-award winning magnum opus, The Tree of Life attempts to pull together ideas about the formation of life and planet Earth, as well as the mysteries of growing up and apparently just being an adult too. So, y’know, life.

It’s a crazed, overstuffed epic, that pits animated dinosaurs against scientifically-designed supernovas and Sean Penn wandering aimlessly through a desert. 

Three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is understandably incredible to watch, but in terms of substance, The Tree of Life is entirely what you make of it.

Most of us seem pretty comfortable in the knowledge that it’s pretentious twaddle though. 

Only God Forgives (2013)

Finally we end up back with the man himself. Refn’s highly-anticipated follow-up to Drive left a lot of people unhappy. And for good reason. 

Almost plotless in its imaginings, Only God Forgives sees Ryan Gosling running a Thai boxing club in Bangkok as a front for drug-running. When his brother is killed and his mother (a bonkers Kristin Scott Thomas) calls for the murderer’s head on a plate, Gosling faces off with a local police lieutenant who can both pull a sword from his spine and deliver a frankly beautiful karaoke performance. 

Critics fired out countless five and one star reviews, Empire listed it on both their best and worst films of 2013 lists, and at its initial premiere at Cannes, it received both a standing ovation and widespread booing. They don’t get more divisive than that. 

The Neon Demon is in UK cinemas now. 

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