Nicolas Winding Refn is a sensationalist film artist, one of the best and most exciting directors on the scene. He seeks to cause controversy and get people talking about his work. Because otherwise, whatâ€™s the point?
Like fellow countryman Lars von Trier, Refnâ€™s a bit of a joker and always good for a quote. He once stated â€śArt is an act of violenceâ€ť and thatâ€™s arguably why his work is full of stylistic bravado and daring content.
Violence and hero figures feature predominantly, sometimes presented with a supernatural aura. â€śValhalla Risingâ€ť (2009), â€śDriveâ€ť (2011) and â€śOnly God Forgivesâ€ť (2013) form a loose trilogy featuring what can be described as celestial punishersâ€”avenging angels doling out vicious beatings to bad people.
Above: A striking image from “The Neon Demon,” so typical of NWRâ€™s cinema.
Bronson, Driver and Chang posed to look as menacing or cool as possible.
Presenting Characters as Icons
Firstly, letâ€™s take a look at movie titles and character names. â€śPusher,â€ť â€śBleeder,â€ť â€śFear X,â€ť â€śBronson,â€ť â€śOne-Eye,â€ť â€śDriver,â€ť â€śChangâ€ť and â€śThe Neon Demon.â€ť The cinema of NWR is a walk on the fantasy side of the screen populated with figures who might appear in comic books. There is an undeniable comic-book quality to NWRâ€™s filmography. His characters are so intense and violent, even the â€śSuicide Squadâ€ť would steer well clear of them. Collectively, theyâ€™re like “The Avengers” on acid; a sort of Extraordinary League of Fucking Mentalists. Neither are all these figures physically-imposing mean hombres, bar Bronson (played by Tom Hardy) and One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen).
What makes them iconic, then? This is where the brilliance of NWRâ€™s skills come into play. It can be a shot designed to make them look powerful through pose, lighting, camera placement, or a weird, improbable action. Take, for instance, Chang in â€śOnly God Forgives.â€ť A diminutive Bangkok copper who enjoys karaoke, when not chasing down thugs, he is able to produce a giant sword from his back. But we never see a scabbard, itâ€™s like heâ€™s pulling the weapon from his spine. In â€śValhalla Risingâ€ť One-Eye is a mute brute whose physicality is twinned to the locations and harsh terrain of the filmâ€™s mountainous setting. Itâ€™s as if this slave-warrior has been birthed by the mountains and is made of granite.
Bad-ass characters need to look bad ass on the big screen. This is achieved through costume design as much as lighting and individual actions. â€śDriveâ€ť was NWRâ€™s breakout movie; the audience and critical hit he needed to get to the next stage of his career. Before this, he was seen as a promising type who hadnâ€™t quite made the most of his obvious talent. Heâ€™d made his first movie aged 24, but the going had been tough. Before 2008â€™s â€śBronson,â€ť Refn was so broke and at a creative dead end, he was making episodes of â€śMiss Marpleâ€ť for British television.
Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning in “Drive” and “The Neon Demon.”
Costume and Lighting
Casting Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and getaway driver in a film noir tale was leant oodles of style and strangeness when the director took on the project. Today, Goslingâ€™s silver scorpion jacket is iconic. But it served a practical purpose as well looking cool. â€śI wanted [Gosling] to wear a white satin jacket that would illuminate him at night,â€ť he explained. The white satin also works symbolically. Driver is the filmâ€™s white knight hero, and â€śDriveâ€ť takes place in LAâ€”the City of Angels.
In â€śThe Neon Demonâ€ť Elle Fanningâ€™s Jess is a supermodel preyed upon a trio of witch-like cannibal freaks. Her beauty and success riles them into taking the young girl down. Refnâ€™s latest is a departure because the focus is women and femininity of an entirely toxic kind. One of the filmâ€™s big set-pieces was inspired by the art of James Turrell and the use of the colour blue, predominant throughout along with the colour red, according to cinematographer Natascha Braier, was to reflect Jessâ€™s narcissism, inspired by the Greek myth of Narcissus.
NWRâ€™s sensationalist approach desires the audience be shocked by his imagination.
Brutality is a constant theme in the cinema of NWR. He creates worlds in which violent actions have even more violent consequences and outcomes. Itâ€™s an approach very much part and parcel of his shock aesthetic, but it is not empty or gratuitous Hollywood-style violence. Sometimes, it can be bone-crunchingâ€”â€śValhalla Risingâ€™sâ€ť sound design is extraordinaryâ€”and other times it can be outrageously provocative, but in keeping with the overall aim and tone of the work (Ruby, played by Jena Malone, shagging a female corpse in â€śThe Neon Demonâ€ť and later bathing in blood).
Hammers and nails, metal chopsticks, boot heels, baseball bats, skulls bashed in, eyes gouged outâ€”all have featured in provocative moments, designed to repel the viewer and arguably stretch back to his roots in cinematic realismâ€”his debut film, â€śPusher,â€ť was released in 1996, at the time when Danish cinema was hyped about â€śDogme 95.â€ť Refn, it should also be noted, is a huge fan of horror movies, especially 1974â€™s â€śThe Texas Chain Saw Massacreâ€ť where you think you see more than you actually do.
The elevator scene in â€śDriveâ€ť: a romance scene turned into an act of sickening violence.
Less is More
Take for instance, Driver kicking the gangster to death in an elevatorâ€”one of the most electrifying and gorgeous scenes in all of Refnâ€™s work to date. The screen saturated in light, the use of slow motion when Driver kisses Irene (Carey Mulligan), before turning to the thug in the lift with them and proceeding to smash his face in with his boot heel. Refn consulted Gaspar NoĂ© when making the model for the thugâ€™s faceâ€”which we seen in a very brief shotâ€”has been caved in. NoĂ© caused major controversy with 2002â€™s “Irreversible,” which featured a man having his face smashed to pieces by a fire extinguisher, achieved through clever model work and subtle computer animation. The method is seamless. But in â€śDriveâ€ť we think weâ€™ve seen more than we actually have. Itâ€™s a clever tactic. Same goes for the moment in â€śOnly God Forgivesâ€ť where boxing promoter and sex offender, Billy (Tom Burke), is beaten to deathâ€”his face a bloody, re-arranged mess, rendered like a Picasso. What we see is repulsive, but the camera does not dwell on the image, it flashes in our eyes, leaving enough of an impression.
Photos Â© respective film studios.