Nicolas Winding Refn was already moderately well known before Drive tore onto the scene in 2011. His Pusher trilogy had earned him notoriety, and Bronson and Valhalla Rising cemented his reputation for visionary extreme cinema. Not that either made for easy viewing. But with Drive his sensibility coalesced into something stylish, classic and austere. The opening sequence alone, with Ryan Gosling’s Driver darting from police searchlights, using all manner of vehicular stealth to evade capture, was a bravura performance. So how did Refn evolve, with no film training, into a preeminent director? TIFF is running all of Refn’s films over the next week. Let’s take a look at some, after the jump.
It’s odd to think that when the original Pusher movie came out, back in 1996, people thought it was a decent albeit grimy Pulp Fiction rip-off. There were echoes of John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in following the machinations of a duo of low-level drug dealers through the dirty streets of Copenhagen. But Pusher had its own skeezy reality, and copped to the banal violence of its protagonists without Pulp Fiction‘s plot and time convolutions. Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Denmark’s biggest export, Mads Mikkelsen) are a hapless pair, who find themselves getting into deeper and deeper trouble with their boss Milo (Zlatko Buric), a distributor on the dope scene. Oddly, as Frank’s situation grows ever more dire, the film takes on a peculiar tone of nightmare revery, and ends on a surprisingly ambiguous note. Each of the subsequent Pusher sequels follow this template, the second revolving around Tonny some years later after he is released from prison (not a spoiler), and the third zeroing in on Milo on the night of his obnoxious daughter’s twenty-fifth birthday, when his own life and business is starting to unravel. The films all possess this grotty realism – you feel like you’ve literally fallen into the characters’ seedy lives – and draw from the same inspirational well as the Scorsese classic Mean Streets. Frank, the protagonist of the first Pusher, is probably the least likeable of the three leads. As he runs out of options, he shuts down completely. Tonny is a sort of useless enforcer. With the word “respect” tattooed on the back of his head, it’s the one thing he’s never going to get. And Milo is probably the most likeable, a Balkan immigrant and terrible cook fronting his illicit business out of a restaurant. Yet they’re all forced to do horrible things through bad circumstances and their own extensive short-comings. Don’t do drugs kids. Or at least, don’t sell drugs on a scale that’s likely to cost you body parts sooner or later. And always, always get paid.
Bleeder is Refn’s little-seen follow-up to the first Pusher film, with several of the same cast. Lenny (Mikkelsen) works with Kitjo (Buric) at a real honest-to-god video-store, with tapes and everything. Their friend Lewis (Bodnia) starts to go off the rails when he learns his girlfriend Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson) is pregnant. His self-loathing takes a nasty turn, making Bleeder even grimmer than Pusher. An interesting footnote is the scene where Lenny finally kisses the girl he’s interested in, and the lights shift dramatically, an early take on Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan’s dramatic elevator kiss in Drive. It takes Refn ten years of gradually elevating his game to arrive at Bronson (2008). Bronson is an extraordinary and difficult film starring Bane, I mean, Tom Hardy as Charles Bronson (different Charles Bronson), Britain’s most violent prisoner. In the seventies a young hot-head named Michael Peterson decides to rob a post office, and fails badly. Sentenced to seven years, he ends up serving thirty-four, thirty of them in solitary confinement, owing to his unstoppable violence. Over that time he reshapes himself as a superstar, Charles Bronson, and imagines himself a renowned celebrity. It’s a gruesome indictment of obsession with fame, based on the true story of a very disturbed man. Hardy is electric in it, his body and personality fusing into a fist that Refn pummels you with again and again.
Valhalla Rising is Refn’s Apocalypse Now, a tortured mystic odyssey following Mads Mikkelsen as One-Eye, a Norse warrior held prisoner and forced to fight other prisoners to survive. He escapes, killing his captors, followed by the boy who brought him food. They fall in with a group of crusaders bound by boat for the Holy Land, but the ship is becalmed by fog and drifts for days. When they sight land they discover it’s not the Middle East but a broken tundra before them. They set out to explore but their number is picked off one by one by arrows flying from the trees. It’s a strange, harrowing film, with hypnotic pacing and a grim sense of the hardship and filth of medieval life. Distrust is sown between One-Eye and the general of the crusaders, and the journey ends in a nihilistic fever. Yay! Both Bronson and Valhalla Rising are fascinating, difficult movies, with unforgettable images and impenetrable characters.
Drive was an exceptional breakthrough, and it may be awhile before Refn can repeat it. Only God Forgives was widely panned for style over substance. I haven’t seen it, but its The Grifters-on-acid-in-Asia sensibility sounds like the place that Refn has evolved to. Drive succeeds in large measure on Gosling’s iconic neo-Clint Eastwood performance and the palpable wordless chemistry between him and Carey Mulligan. It’s also a very controlled film, with paroxysms of extraordinary violence, more disciplined than David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, another film with a jacket-as-uniform hero. If you haven’t seen it, Gosling plays a getaway driver with a specific code – he will get you to the job, and from the job, and that is it – one that he discharges like a car ninja. He slowly falls for his neighbour Irene (Mulligan), but her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is getting out of jail to return to her and their son. The Driver acts all Lancelot-like, befriending Standard, who turns around and asks his help on a heist to pay off some prison debts. The heist goes pear-shaped, if that pear was soaked in blood and exploded, and The Driver’s strictly compartmentalized life gets its walls knocked down. The quiet intensity and ramping tension of Drive is a genuine accomplishment, and it’s Refn’s best realized film.
For people that haven’t experienced it, the rough verité vibe of his early films is worth checking out. And the later films are striking on a big theatre screen. Refn has arrived as a visual master for awhile now. If he could only find something human for his pictures to be about.
With Blood on His Hands: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn runs from October 23rd-November 5th. For full information on screenings and tickets head over to TIFF.