Danish provocateur, Nicolas Winding Refn has been revolutionizing the way we see films and changing our concept of what the visual medium means since 1996 with his feature film debut, Pusher. Ever since, the man has made some of the most daring and fascinating films of recent history, whether they’re good or bad, you like them or not, NWR always distorts the cinematic field whenever he releases a new film. In honor of The Neon Demon finally being released after mixed reactions everywhere its screened, I would like to take a step back and look at NWR’s career post the Pusher trilogy and how this color-blind genius has re-invented how a film should look and sound, as well as keeping himself true to his art and constantly changing our perception in regards to the limitations of filmmaking.
Starting with Bronson, this is one of the most creative biopics ever made. A perfect depiction of insanity through the lens of the infamous Charles Bronson, Bronson goes through every high and low in this man’s life, treating it very much like The Myth of Sisyphus. When watching Bronson, I like to look at Tom Hardy’s central figure as Sisyphus finally gone mad after having to push that rock ceaselessly and endlessly being punished for it. Here I look to see Bronson a man who is looking for success in his own weird way, getting as close as he can and then being sent to solitary confinement every single time. Where most of the film is told through the perspective of Charles Bronson re-living his life via this crazy stage-play, the film appears to end in Bronson finally being triumphant, pulling of his great work of art but then as the film appears to be going to black, we’re treated to one more tiny little scene that depicts a mercilessly beaten Bronson confined to cage where he can barely fit into standing up, proving Charles Bronson will never get that strange triumph he so desires. Its a very fun biopic as you’re watching Tom Hardy go mad as he depicts the raw craziness that Bronson brings along with him, but taking a step back you realize this man went to prison for some petty rob involving something like 30 pounds and has practically been held there since then without having killed anyone, which is why you have him going mad, accepting this as his only way of life and building his life around the idea of being restricted in prison until he dies.
Valhalla Rising marks NWR’s plunge into the archaic land of savage vikings, well at-least the first fifteen minutes do. In what was the best introduction for an NWR film before Drive blew it out of the water, NWR sets up the violent nature of this mysterious land so perfectly in this film’s first fifteen minutes before being swallowed up by a necessary yet incredibly boring segment of the story involving an eternal boat-ride in which almost nothing happens because NWR decided to cut out a bunch of cool scenes from it. Luckily, the film composes itself for its last act in which it manages to tie everything perfectly to properly convey the message of the film that seemed to be meandering on some other plain of existence by minute twenty-two. Valhalla Rising is honestly a disappointment, even though its got some amazing components to it. Whether that be the fact that Mikkelsen is able to carry this film completely without the use of words, the way the story concludes, and the debate regarding who One-eye. From my perspective, One-eye represents the entire Norse culture, a personification of it that was placed on Earth by the Gods to revise if they should still care about these mortal men or just let them be consumed by the ideals of preached by the Christians. Which is where that final segment comes in hand as it presents both the viewer and One-eye with the answer, except each answer is different. For One-eye, the answer has being with him all along, its the kid, the kid represents the future in this new land that they’re Christian companions weren’t able to baptize. But for the viewer, the answer is America, when those native americans leap into the shot, suddenly you realize why the boat-ride was that long and that they’re in the new continent, ready to start a new order.
Drive was my introduction to Refn and when I finished watching it I immediately screamed in my mind “who is this Swedish genius,” I immediately looked him up and found out he was Danish, that he had previously worked on a strange biopic with Tom Hardy and that his last film had been mercilessly bludgeoned at Cannes, which is why I didn’t watch until a few weeks ago. Anyhow, Drive hits every beat it should, it works perfectly in the neon-noir genre NWR has created, but its also a touching romance whilst never retreating from the violent nature of its story to deliver a beautiful assembled package of bloody action mixed with subtle love story set in a world of horror brought to life by Newton Thomas Sigel’s lush cinematography and the heart-pounding cyberpunk synth beats in the background. Drive is a masterfully crafted film that flirts with perfection, from the way NWR manages to balance Ryan Gosling’s perfectly subdued performance alongside the maddening horror brought to life in Albert Brooks, the way he amplifies the sound of motors, gun-shots, and slaps so you’re able to appreciate the small moments between Gosling and Mulligan even more, yet the movie’s title is still Drive and the film never loses that essence, though many complain there’s not enough driving in Drive, I believe Drive is complemented by all its other action sequences that showcase the violence that NWR has created for the seedy side of L.A. If the elevator scene, those two stunningly choreographed, beautifully shot car chases, and my personal favorite moment in which Gosling’s unnamed Driver strikes his hammer of vengeance upon some bratty punk plus a well-constructed touching romance isn’t enough for you, I don’t know what to say because Drive is awesome, from its cinematography to its performances, Drive rings eerily similar to many films out there yet is a league of its own as it encapsulates what all those other failed action movies aspire to be.
Then came Only God Forgives, splitting the masses down the middle, people claiming it to be a masterpiece and other calling it the worst film they’d ever seen. Destroyed at Cannes after NWR’s last effort there had won him Best Director. Only God Forgives is Ryan Gosling second collaboration with the artist, a film that hearkens back to what he did with Valhalla Rising in which he stripped his protagonist of voice, Only God Forgives has us following Julian, a tormented being set in between God and the Devil, manipulated to fight the God and eventually be forgiven for his actions, as the title suggests. The thing with Only God Forgives is it could be a great film but instead chooses to be awfully slow, abruptly cut before something interesting is about to happen, feature no character development whatsoever except for Julian even though that arc is never completed because they decided to cut the final scene from the film and instead we’ve got a slow, karaoke filled mess of a thing that calls itself a film. I wouldn’t dare call this a bad film because there are components of NWR’s genius in many scenes throughout the ninety minute runtime, but all of those scenes are watered down by too much silence that even subtract from Martinez’s wonderful score, random events we couldn’t care less about and NWR tuning way too much into his inner being which leaves us wondering about what he’s trying to say to himself and Jodorowsky in this cluster of film.
With all that said about NWR’s ups and downs through his career in filmmaking, what made The Neon Demon my most anticipated film of the year over something I’ve loved since I was a toddler like Star Wars? Sincerely, it was just a hunch, but ever since that feeling first arose and I’ve been fed with such gorgeous imagery, The Neon Demon’s trailer is probably the trailer I’ve most re-watched, plus you’ve got an all-star cast where Elle Fanning will rebel against our notion of her as an actress getting to tune into a drastically different, dark side of her, I’m getting chills even writing this. NWR embracing his overt use of neon in the very title of this film, we not knowing what the hell the title refers to and a depraved tale about the modeling industry that resembles Suspiria in look and feel, plus what will probably be another amazing score from Martinez and NWR choosing to make this film as female-centric as he could making both the writers and cinematographer women as well. This film sounded like nothing I’d ever seen before since its conception and at this point its become an giant enigmatic cloud of devilish tendencies that gets closer and closer to us, waiting to imprint an experience into our minds.