"Nicolas Winding Refn"
Few filmmakers of recent memory have turned heads, popped eyes and dropped jaws like Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn. His new film ONLY GOD FORGIVES, currently playing in the states, is as polarizing as anything he's put forth heretofore. People either love or it f*cking hate it (I'm glad to see John "The Arrow" Fallon dug the hell out of it). I guess it makes sense for Refn to court controversy then, as I've heard the man on more than one occasion describe himself as a "fetish filmmaker"...meaning he makes movies from images he would want to see as a viewer himself. Self-indulgent it may be, but damn, dude's movies kick mucho ass...dripping with stylized composition, hallucinatory candy-colors and depraved ultra-violence. As such, Refn seems a perfect candidate to lift the scalpel upon, dissect to pieces and slip under the microscope, doesn't he? Well hell, let's get to it then folks...here's a peek at the warped lifework of Mr. Nicolas Winding Refn!
Two years after its release and I'm still wholeheartedly in the bag for DRIVE, Refn's minimalist-in-dialogue-but-maximally-styled adaptation of James Sallis' crime novel. Shite is dopeness! Strangely, it's the first of Refn's films he did not pen himself, which, for a budding auteur, you wouldn't assume in regards to his best flick. Still, what works so well in DRIVE is the balance between the gorgeous retro art-house visuals and the noirish character of the Driver - a mysterious man of few words - as he navigates a respectable living by day and a criminal underworld by night. By surrounding the Driver with such sordid and colorful characters, it doesn't matter that he's a blank slate for most of film before transcending into an existential hero by the final reel. Put simply, it's a cool ass movie...even if it is an exercise in style over substance.
Aside from the self-conscious style though, it's really the actors that make this a smooth ass DRIVE. Ryan Gosling forever sheds the pussy NOTEBOOK image by playing The Driver - a nice guy facade masking an enraged maniac - as his limits are pushed to the breaking point of extreme violence. Carey Mulligan plays the vulnerable not-quite-love-interest, with Oscar Isaac playing her slick but ill-fated boyfriend (both of whom star in the Coen brothers' next movie). Even better is the presence of Bryan Cranston as a seedy low-level criminal, Ron Perlman as an Italian higher up, with Albert Brooks as the menacing Jewish mob boss. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the music in the film, which also plays a key role in the picture. That 80s retro-synth-pop shit worked perfectly to at once give the film a throwback feel, but also a timeless quality as well.
Chalk it up to an escalated budget, a watered down MPAA rating, or even the fact it was initially conceived it as a silent film...whatever the reasons, it's pretty clear that FEAR X is the weakest link in Refn's oeuvre to date. What makes the film doubly disappointing is the reality that the script was co-written by Hubert Selby Jr., who wrote the novel REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (it would turn out to be Selby's last writing credit before his death in 2004). Combine all this with a starring turn from John Turturo, whom I've never seen give a bad performance, you'd expect much greater things from FEAR X. Sadly, great things are not delivered. A real shame, as I actually think the first 45 minutes or so give us an intriguing setup, only to fall flat somewhere between the second and third act. Not that such a thing is rare, most horror flicks fall into the category of starting strong only to shit the bed come closing time, but knowing what Refn would go on to create, FEAR X feels like a badly missed opportunity.
Consider the premise. Turturo plays an emotionally bereft widower looking for answers to his wife's sudden accidental death. As each day passes, Turturo becomes increasingly plagued by harrowing visions, day-mares, angst-ridden hallucinations and the like. The closer he seems to solving the mystery, the further away he actually gets, and film inevitably becomes one man's downward descent into his own madness. Sounds fine enough, right?! Well, a PG-13 rating hampers Refn from giving us his trademark violence, and the bizarre use of flashbacks and nightmares just become a jumbled mess of a narrative. And while the film only cost $6.5 million to make, that figure is ten times larger than the budget for Refn's previous film, BLEEDER, yet inexplicably has one tenth the effect. Perhaps hiking the budget took Nicolas out of his element, working with established Hollywood actors and suits and who knows how many other cooks in the kitchen. FEAR X was also the first English language flick for Refn, so who knows how much of the material was lost in translation.
Over the course of ten pictures, you can point to a number of trademarks in Refn's arsenal. For instance, the dude almost always shoots his films in chronological order, often using hand-held camerawork, usually bathing his visual aesthetic in ornately lit colors, mostly deep red. But let's be honest, the most apparent through-line in Refn's movies is the heightened level of sensationalized violence. Dude goes f*cking bonkers! Whether it's Tom Hardy cracking skulls in BRONSON, Gosling stomping a dude's head to a gory pulp in DRIVE, Mads Mikkelsen making a totem out of a severed head in VALHALLA RISING...Refn continues to push the boundaries of what can be shown onscreen. Hell, even going back to his PUSHER trilogy, or even in stuff like BLEEDER and FEAR X, Refn revels in the extreme with his portrayal of bodily death and destruction. Considering his self-proclaimed status as a fetish filmmaker...that makes Refn one twisted mofo. And we love him for it!
As tempted as I am to award Refn's 1996 film debut PUSHER the hidden gem of his resume, it did spawn a trilogy and a foreign language remake, so in all honesty it's not terribly under the radar. So instead, I say the true rare find in Refn's canon is BRONSON, which featured nothing short of a star making coming out party for Tom Hardy...currently one of the baddest mofos we have in Hollywood. True talk, if you've not clocked BRONSON before, do so at your earliest convenience, cause the shite will knock your cum-crusted socks off. The story centers on a 19 year old who, after getting caught robbing a post office, is sentenced to 7 years in prison. Only thing is, dude actually ends up serving 34 years in total - 30 in solitary confinement - where he develops a schizoid alter ego he dubs Charles Bronson. Yeah, shite's nutso, and even better, it's based on a true story. Statements on celebrity culture and the nature of institutionalization are at the fore, with the Hardy lending a blistering performance...at times cartoonish, at times vulnerable, at times a hulking brute who snaps necks like a twig.
After ONLY GOD FORGIVES, word has it that Refn's in line to make a thriller called I WALK WITH THE DEAD, which has his DRIVE co-star Carey Mulligan loosely attached to play a role. Not much is known about the flick, save for its supposedly a sex-thriller taking place in Miami, Florida. We also know that Refn wrote the script himself, which is normally the case. We also have a tentative 2015 release window, which means we have a while to wait to see the sucker, if at all. Currently in pre-production, hopefully this one doesn't fall by the wayside, due to scheduling or financing or any number of landmines and hiccups that befall a film production. As for ONLY GOD FORGIVES, it's not doing so hot in the critical realm. It currently has a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, the major criticism being that, again, it's way too scant in story, way too excessive visually. But as I mentioned, "The Arrow" thought it was pretty tits, so I'm sure the flick is worth a look from us AITH peeps.
In sum, Nicolas Winding Refn's stock continues to climb. After making kick-ass smaller films in his native tongue, the dude has flowered his talent around some of the finest people in showbiz today. In spite of the extremely graphic, unrelenting violence in his movies - or maybe because of - he's forged creative endeavors with A-list actors and craftsmen and damn near delivered every time out. Moreover, the dude has made bona fide stars out of relative unknown international actors - Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Hardy in particular...and just look how their careers have blossomed since working with Refn. But as a "fetish filmmaker", Refn revels in the polemical, fostering a love or hate relationship with the critical mass. He's also been indicted as a flashy style-over-substance filmmaker, but there's no denying that when done well, a la DRIVE, that such an indictment seems utterly ridiculous. In the end, Refn makes highly charged, viscerally refreshing movies with an art-house sensibility that tends to buck genre convention. That doesn't suck, does it?!