Tag: nicolas winding refn


Drive (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The carefully calibrated “Drive,” based on James Sallis’ novel, is not dissimilar to pulse-pounding thrillers like the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.,” Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia,” and the Wachowskis’ “Bound.” These four films not only start off slowly, their premises promise rather standard fares. About halfway through, however, their curious stories start to take shape and their true forms are revealed. The protagonists are people who have their backs against the wall. They must survive or perish. What makes these stories compelling is not the template but the manner in which they are told. A case can be made that “Drive” is a mood piece above all.

This approach is almost necessary considering that our protagonist is mostly silent. He has three part-time jobs: a mechanic, a Hollywood stuntman, and a getaway driver. He is given no name. (I will refer to him as The Driver henceforth.) He values his solitude. He minds his own business. Strictly professional. Cold. Impersonal. When asked questions, answers can be found in his eyes or his body language. On the occasion he does speak, he gets to the point. Less than ten words with real intention behind each one. I cannot image anyone else playing The Driver other than Ryan Gosling. He will be remembered for this role.

An expected plot device: The Driver is shown to be capable of caring for others. Specifically, he grows attached to his neighbors: a waitress (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). His relationship with Irene and Benicio is handled with genuine humanity and a real sense of style. For example, typical lines of dialogue, which is a potential minefield of clichés, are muted. Instead, a synth-heavy soundtrack is placed over the action—robotic and repetitive on the surface but listen closely: lyrics are filled with sadness and longing. They find a connection precisely because of their loneliness. Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. It is expected, too, that he will be released just when The Driver and Irene begin to consider taking what they have a bit further. Clearly, tension is not always reliant upon car chases.

Car chases demand that we hold our breaths. It is not interested in good guys and bad guys shooting guns at each other. No, emphasis is placed on stealth as The Driver attempts to get his clients (often thieves) to safety within five minutes after leaving the scene of the crime. Notice that in these scenes, we are locked in the car with our protagonist. No score, no soundtrack. We hear breathing, gasps, tires rubbing against the pavement. It gets so silent and so still at times, we feel our chests pounding from anticipation. Eyes wide open. The work offers a first-rate experience. It requires skill, great timing, a real eye for action and reaction.

By the end of the movie, more than half a dozen people are dead and there is blood money. I’m not interested in introducing the players, but know this: they are played by terrific character actors like Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. They know how to command a scene simply by standing in one spot and giving a look. There is wonderful chemistry among all the performers. I felt as though everyone had signed up for the film because they believed in it, that they actually wanted to be there and do the best job possible. It shows.

“Drive” is an ensemble piece. The chess pieces are moved into place in a way that is logical, exciting, and thrilling. Viewers might remember it for the violence—they are brutal, in-your-face, and real bloody. However, notice that these scenes often have a point. They are never gratuitous or glamorized; it shows, for instance, that a hammer to the hand is especially painful, that kicking one’s face in is ugly and gross, that one car crashing against one another is loud and disturbing. In this story, violence is a means of survival.

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2016)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Winding Refn is an interesting and capable writer-director; anybody would be proud to have “Bronson” and “Drive” in their oeuvre. However, although a gifted filmmaker in that he has a knack for picking near-perfect soundtrack to accompany specific images, he is not yet at the level to pull off a beast like “The Neon Demon,” a would-be arthouse psychological horror film about a sixteen-year-old trying to make it into the modeling industry.

To be successful in this type of film, the helmer of the picture must underline the story’s theme, or themes, in just about every scene. Despite the numerous beautiful high fashion magazine inspired images, the forefront is almost always the visuals rather than what is, or are, coursing in veins of the facade. This creates a superficial experience, which is partly the point because I believe the story is a critique of the fashion industry or Hollywood in general given the rigorous standards of women’s physical beauty, but it is never involving since we never get to learn what makes the heroine tick.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse the young aspiring model and she is convincing as an innocent girl navigating her way through a cutthroat industry. There is a pureness and softness to her that radiates a warm feeling and so when Jesse enters a room we understand why photographers, designers, and casting directors look her way. Less impressive, however, is when Fanning portrays the flip side of the coin. The glowering looks, the tight jaw and mouth, the long but empty silences come across too much as a performance. This is why the second half is much weaker than the first; we no longer believe or relate to the character that anchors the story.

There are a few interesting themes, one of which involves Jesse always being regarded, whether it be a boy (Karl Glusman) with whom she meets mere days after her arrival in Los Angeles, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) with an interesting job at night, creepy photographers (Desmond Harrington), and fellow fashion models. Compliments are always being thrown her way, some genuine but mostly out jealousy. We are given a chance to laugh at the highly competitive models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and their incredibly poor self-esteem.

Perhaps most noteworthy are scenes that show a room full of people but no one is talking to one another. The use of silence amplifies the fantasy. People, looking soulless, corpse-like, are either looking away or at Jesse, the sunshine in the middle of winter. When the critique is pointed and specific to our modern culture of selfies, wannabe/self-proclaimed models, and celebrity-worship, the film commands relevance.

Although not short of ambition, as detailed above, for the most part, however, the “The Neon Demon” is a trial to sit through. There are things to see but there is no one to root for. There is not one specimen worth putting under a microscope to undergo a thorough examination. Also, I felt that the resolution is so literal (given a particular common saying about the fashion industry), I wondered if Refn gave up on trying to come up with a more inspired way to end his story. Clearly, David Lynch he is yet not. At least with Lynch, there is no compromise.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Liv Corfixen, wife of the man who made the critically acclaimed “Drive,” takes control of the camera and documents the creative process of her husband’s work while shooting “Only God Forgives” for six months in Bangkok, Thailand.

“My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” is a documentary that is unnecessary, unfocused, and not completely engaging. What I liked about it, however, is that it shows some of the trials of being in charge of a movie. That is, being a director is not exactly a glamorous job. It is full of stresses which involve finances, having only a limited time to shoot certain scenes depending on location, and there is always a concern about whether the final product would be received well by critics and audiences.

Director Corfixen is a passive director in that she fails to ask her subject the difficult questions. For example, Refn emphasizes that he does not want to make the same movie as “Drive” and so he tries to make a less commercial picture as a follow-up. As the director of this documentary, it is Corfixen’s responsibility to drill the subject with questions about expectations, his definition of success, or what makes a great film despite criticisms or acclaim. It is most frustrating that Corfixen always treats Refn as her husband first and as a subject second—if at all. Thus, why make the documentary at all?

We get some behind-the-scenes look of “Only God Forgives” which is neat at times because it is a chance to see how Refn works with equipments, the crew, and actors. But there is not enough of these. There are more scenes shot in the hotel which would not have been a problem if Refn had something interesting to say on a consistent basis. There is a lot of laying about in bed and shots of the children running around or playing. Once in a while we observe Refn about to break due to the stress of having to put the film together. Prior to day one of shooting, he admits to not having an idea what the movie is really about.

The saving grace of this documentary is Ryan Gosling. There is something about him that just commands attention. He doesn’t need to say anything—which actually says a lot. There is a funny bit about Refn explaining to his lead the parallels between violence and sex. Gosling looks at the camera every time there is an opportunity for a dirty joke. This film ought to have more playful moments like that—fluctuations to prevent the audience from falling asleep. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky also makes an appearance.

Bottom line: the documentary is supposed to be about Refn. Although Gosling and Jodorowsky appearing in the film is fun, I did not feel as though I got to know Refn as a person or a director in a substantial way. Based on this, the film falls short.

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Two brothers run a fight club in Thailand which functions as a cover for the family drug business. After killing a sixteen-year-old prostitute, Billy (Tom Burke) gets beaten to death by the girl’s father. Having received the news of her eldest son’s death, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in and is enraged when she learns that although Julian (Ryan Gosling) had the chance to avenge his brother, he had failed to take the man’s life. Not realizing the complexity of the situation, Crystal commands her men to punish everyone responsible.

No one can take away the fact that “Only God Forgives,” written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is beautifully photographed, often bathed in a cascade of blues and reds, and there is thought put behind how or when a camera should move in order to underline the manic intensity of an increasingly messy and violent plot. However, the film is, for the most part, a sort of a poetic dirge—eyebrow-raising at its best and somnolent at its worst.

The clash of stoic and hyperbolic acting works. Gosling embodies the former and Thomas the latter; the twisted mother-son relationship is one that I found to be somewhat fascinating. Because Crystal is such a harpy, truly despicable from the moment we meet her checking into a hotel, one wonders if she is the reason Julian has so many issues. On the other hand, because Julian, a full-grown adult, fails to speak his mind when his mother has crossed a line, mistaking subservience for respect, the cycle continues. Their relationship is one that cannot be fixed or untangled because, even though they are complete opposites in many ways, the two are so intractable.

But the picture is not so much a character study. Rather, it is an experiment of mood reflected by the soundtrack and images that are inspired, shocking, trashy, and arresting. In the closing credits, Refn dedicates his work to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of “Santa sangre,” which so happens to be about a boy who grew up to have serious issues with his mother. Parallels are abound, hands being chopped off among them, and because I loved that film, it was wonderful seeing a director being blatantly inspired by it.

The main difference between “Santa sangre” and “Only God Forgives” is that the former commands control with its images, feelings, and plot during its entire duration. With the latter, I caught myself vacillating between being genuinely interested and not caring. The middle section is a trial to sit through when one craves to be shown something new. Another parallel involves both pictures containing almost dream-like sequences. However, Refn’s work brings up questions that are really not that worth answering.

I believe the picture has artistic merit. I found about half of its content to be quite daring and in some scenes I found myself wishing that more directors were willing to take a chance as Refn does here. Not all of them work but the wonderful thing about movies that push to make a creative leap is that they demand to be seen more than once.


Bronson (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.