Hello movie fans! If you're reading this article in North America, it probably means one of two things: either you have seen Drive (2011) and LOVED IT, or you've never heard of this foreign-sounding man and are wondering why he deserves his own piece. In any case, I feel like everyone needs to know who this man is, and why his movies are so relevant. Without further ado, these are the many faces of Nicolas Winding Refn!
The Face Of A Kingpin: Pusher Trilogy (1996-2005)
Refn's first feature film, Pusher (1996), brought Danish audiences deep into the depraved and desperate dealings of a drug pusher and his henchman (Played convincingly by Kim Bodina and the magical Mads Mikklesen). This was not the run-of-the-mill kingpin film which movie fans had become accustomed to, however. Refn took an interesting approach, chronicling the lives of low-level grunts instead of a rising kingpin, and this angle made for innately more intense and dangerous situations because the characters were fighting for their lives against both the competition and their suppliers. As the series progressed, Refn zeroed in on another low-level dealer and finally the kingpin who commanded the previous protagonists, giving the series a full-circle feeling.
The intertwining lives of these men and those who were left in their wake provided insight into both the drug trade and also the utter moral and spiritual degradation of the dealers themselves. Higher philosophical questions are evoked in these films, and Refn expertly blends unflinching violence and gut-wrenching emotional decisions, creating an ultimately enthralling odyssey into the themes of mortality and overarching despair. Nicolas' first face is simultaneously exciting and affecting, and all three in this trilogy are to be watched if you seek stories from the urban underworld.
The Face Of Psychological Thrills: Fear X (2003)
For Refn's inaugural English-language film, Fear X, he spun a tale of a security guard (portrayed by the surprisingly rousing John Turturro) who tries to uncover the mysterious facts behind his wife's murder. Although this entry in Refn's filmography met tepid reviews and bankrupted his company, the movie itself is quite tense and well-paced. James Remar plays his usual somewhat creepy self as the prime suspect in Turturro's investigation, and as paranoia and desperation mount, the cinematography lends itself to a thrilling atmosphere and an all around taut thriller. Another reason this movie is noteworthy is the ending, which can only be described as ambiguous. Without giving anything away, the movie's climax leaves you empathizing with the protagonist, for all the ups and downs. This is a solid movie to be sure.
The Face Of Controversy: Bronson (2008)
When it comes to biographical motion pictures, or as they're colloquially known, 'Bio-pics', there are few which are more recognizable and controversial than Bronson. Tom Hardy plays Charles Bronson, a real-life career inmate of the British penitentiary system who was thrown in the slammer at a young age and loved it, so through an extensive and comprehensive display of violent and outrageous acts, he got his prison term extended over and over again. This film has a very interesting cinematic style, and Refn pays great homage to Stanley Kubrick with his pseudo-psychedelic sequences and narration by the titular character. The actual Bronson was apparently impressed by Tom Hardy's portrayal and the movie itself, which is a great sign for a bio-pic. However, like Refn's other films, this is unflinching in its display of brutality and is not for everyone. The dark humor throughout the film offsets the violence, and in some cases accentuates it, making for an entertaining, if at many points intense, film. Another great effort, and we're only halfway through his filmography!
The Face Of Vikings And Crusaders: Valhalla Rising (2009)
Teaming up with frequent collaborator Mads Mikklesen, this time giving life to a mute viking warrior called One-Eye, Refn offers a ton of artistic cinematography and even more blood and battle. This movie is fairly slow paced, but the fight scenes are excruciatingly intense and realistic. The ultra-realism of the violence is offset by the deeply surreal story which heavily emphasizes One-Eye's visions of the future, the nature of life and the afterlife, as well as touching on themes of nihilism in the face of death. The protagonist is captured by a group of Crusaders who get him to fight prisoners and eventually lead them to the Holy Land, which ends up not being exactly as it seems.
Refn again scores major points in the art department, making great use of panoramic shots and landscapes. Very few shots in this movie lack beauty, and the film relies more on telling a visual tale than a verbal one. Mads Mikklesen does a great job conveying his character's thoughts and feelings without uttering a single word, and is a major part of the movie's success. Some people may not enjoy the pacing, but this is nonetheless an excellent artistic piece.
The Face Of Neo-Noir: Drive (2011)
What do you get when you combine Ryan Gosling, an art-house director, and the plot of a crime thriller? It can only be the award-winning Drive, Refn's arguably most well-known and acclaimed film to date! The film centers on an unnamed man (Played by Ryan Gosling) who drives stunt cars by day and drives getaway cars by night. When he meets a woman and her child, they become close and things start to seem as if they might go well. That is, until the criminal father of the woman's child gets out of prison and is forced to do just one more job.
Drive is great because everything just works. The cinematography is great, as one would come to expect from Refn, and the script is excellent. Gosling's character has only a few lines, instead relying on facial expressions and body language to express most of his personality. The other element that puts this movie over the edge of greatness is the stellar supporting cast. Bryan Cranston (Probably better known as Walter White from Breaking Bad) plays the Driver's partner in ventures, both legal and illegal, and Albert Brooks (Marlin from Finding Nemo!) delivers a chilling and entertaining performance as the villain - a dangerous gangster who becomes involved in a most unexpectedly deadly plot to steal mob money. Ron Pearlman also plays Brooks' partner-in-crime, but he's rather overshadowed by Brooks' performance, if not by his physical stature.
Also, did I mention the soundtrack is AMAZING?! All in all, this deserves the top spot in Refn's filmography, and is a fantastic cinematic experience. As per usual, if you decide to take this wild ride, prepare for some pretty unrelenting violence in the second half.
The Face Of A Criminal Family: Only God Forgives (2013)
The poster itself displays the dark tone of this movie, but don't let that fool you. If there's anything most memorable about this very unforgettable and dark flick, it's the color palette. The whole movie feels very much like Dario Argento's cinematography with deep coloration throughout, and unyielding violence. Ryan Gosling stars in this as well, playing a man named Julian whose mother is a drug kingpin in Thailand. When Julian's despicable brother is murdered by an "Angel of Death" police officer, he is ordered to kill the police officer, which leads to some extreme showdowns between the reluctant Julian, his gang, and the cop. The movie is a little slower than Drive, and also more mature from a plot standpoint. There is definitely more darkness in this film than in most of Refn's filmography, but if you can stomach it, you will experience a very intriguing and semi-surreal descent into the Thai underworld.
The soundtrack is very cool in this movie as well, employing techno tunes as its predecessor did, to great effect. Also, the vengeful cop (played excellently by Vithaya Pansrimgarn) is a great character, acting as a seemingly-immortal agent of fate against Gosling's protagonist. The movie is brutal, but it is also visually engaging and a great example of using a heavily colored filter to great effect. Although it doesn't quite measure up to Drive, Only God Forgives is a worthy entry into Refn's list of works and is the last of his movies as of this moment.
I for one cannot wait for Nicolas Winding Refn to bring more stories to life, and I insist that if you have the palette for dark, brooding movies full of philosophical questions, deep themes, and gritty violence, you check out this awesome director!
Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave suggestions for future articles in the comment section below!