Nicolas Winding Refn- when your middle name is Winding- you have to use the full name. Refn is a prolific Danish filmmaker who directed Pusher at age 26 in 1996 (later turning into a trilogy) and has followed that up with seven other archiveable films since and counting. In stretch from 2009 to 2016 with four straight films- I’m not sure you could do a top 10 of the year without including Refn’s work- remarkable consistency. He makes unmistakably violent films, with stoic protagonists, bathes them in color (most often neon) and is quite simply of the most accomplished visual directors of his generation.
Best film: Drive. I don’t think it is an open and shut case as both Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives are spectacular and highly ambitious. It was Drive that made many people (me included) seek out Refn’s previous work and track him since. Cliff Martinez’s brilliant score and a who’s-who of a talented ensemble (try to get that cast together again right now) doesn’t hurt—but it is Refn’s pace, the patient tracking camera that made this one of 2011’s very best films.
total archiveable films: 8
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 3 (Valhalla Rising, Drive, Only God Forgives)
most overrated: Not a thing- not close. So the next time someone accuses me of just regurgitating what mainstream critics’ think (it doesn’t happen often but does on occasion) I need to remember to bring up Refn. He’s a much better director than the consensus would lead you to believe. Now he’s done most of his best work recently, but he currently has 0 films on the TSPDT consensus top 2000. It doesn’t get much better for the 21st century list either—literally the only film that lands in the top 1000 of the 21st century TSPDT (I have 3 of his in the top 100 of their respective decade mind you as a comparison) is Drive which is still underrated- landing at the #12 slot for 2011 films.
most underrated : Only God Forgives. The follow-up to Drive disappointed everyone except for me. I’ve said this often but seek out the film directly after a major work from an artist that got universal praise (see Sofia’s Marie Antoinette, or Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirit). The incorrect initial backlash often irreparably hurts the reputation of these films. This is yet another example. Refn doubles down on the set design, use of neon light and color. It would probably be better as a completely silent film (it doesn’t have a ton of dialogue anyways—and we’re watching this film on a screen, not reading the book on a beach)—but the visuals will blow your hair back.
gem I want to spotlight : Valhalla Rising. Another Refn film that proves he doesn’t really need any dialogue at all. It is Only God Forgives set outside and instead of expressionistic lighting- here his gorgeous mise-en-scene consists of almost mythic Herzog-like natural exteriors and a talented eye for framing.
- tales of masculinity, violence
- the hyper expressionistic neon lighting and color work from the Italians Bava and Argento
- stoic performances—silent cinema, rarely needs dialogue, drained of emotion—sure, McQueen is an example—but (and it is an odd pairing) also Bressonian models—or Dreyer performances from Ordet or Gertrud
- I see the influence of Germans- the gonzo bizarrities of Herzog’s world combined with the clear care and curation of a set design from Fassbinder
- Carefully orchestrated tracking shots— I mention this during his weakest archiveable effort (and the quality is not a fit comparison, strictly the description)- but the impressive sections feel like Tarkovsky is directing Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant
- Only God Forgives
- Valhalla Rising
- I Am the Angel of Death: Pusher III
- The Neon Demon
- Too Old to Die Young
By year and grades
|2005- I Am the Angel of Death: Pusher III||HR|
|2009- Valhalla Rising||HR|
|2013- Only God Forgives||HR/MS|
|2016- The Neon Demon||R/HR|
|2019- Too Old to Die Young||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
@Drake-I’m glad someone else appreciates Refn’s films as much as I do. It seems he always gets the “style over substance” critique, with how much he focuses on the visuals, but I’ve always felt as though that’s exactly what cinema is about: visual storytelling. After I had watched Bronson and Drive I heard so many bad things about Only God Forgives and was surprisingly blown away by it, especially the insane cinematography, in particular the use of color. If that’s what people define as style over substance, then sign me up!
@Thomas Locke– yes! I love to hear it. Thanks for sharing.
—– “People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.” – Ridley Scott
I have never understood people who criticize a movie because it is “style over substance”, it makes me want to slap them
@Drake, @ Aldo, @Thomas Locke
I dont entirely comprehend the meaning of ‘style over substance’. I mean I guess I sort of know what it means but style and substance are such broad terms to define. There’s so much to the style of a movie and the ‘substance’ of a movie. It’s not just one aspect.
I really doubt visual brilliance and a lack of a plot is criticized. If anything, its praised by critics for being unique.(Goodfellas and Tree of Life). I also dont believe that visual brilliance=’style over substance’. This phrase is quite hard to define.
@Azman- I don’t think we have to overthink this one. This one is straight forward.
I think you should give a second (or third, or fourth, or even ten-thousandth) look to Valhalla Rising, Drake. I think it’s a MP and maybe even a big one (very back-loaded, however). It admittedly borrows a lot from Aguirre, Apocalypse Now, The New World, and various other films; a few of the shots I felt were right out of Aguirre though I’m not complaining haha. You’re right to mention Dreyer and Bresson who are huge influences on the film’s austerity and I’d also mention fellow Dane von Trier (Refn even uses the chapter breaks like in Breaking the Waves, which was edited by his father Anders Refn, and sets the beginning in the Scottish Highlands as well) on top of that.
I think it truly begins to take off during the boat segment with that series of dissolves – though the segments set in Scotland are not to be ignored – and then it starts to reach MP level with some of the camera movement, montage sequences, and sound design once we reach the New World. I also felt that, like Days of Heaven, we were kinda seeing the film through the perspective of the boy at times. I am fairly certain this is Refn’s strongest film, and I hope very much he makes another work of this quality.
@Zane- thanks for good work here
@Zane I saw it last night and re-watched it this morning and I’m with you, it’s absolutely mystical. Really captures that mix of beauty and brutality I love in Aguirre. Refn just hits hard with so many great shots and sequences constantly throughout it. Very special movie.
It astounds me how underrated Refn is. I think lovers of action consider his movies too slow and boring, and lovers of typical arthouse fare consider his movies too gratuitously violent. If anything I think his melding of these styles makes him all the more unique. I’m excited to keep exploring more of his stuff.
“I’m colorblind, I can’t see mid-colors. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it.” and that’s why he makes some of the most neon films out there.
Wow, that’s fascinating. Kind of makes me appreciate even more how personal that style is for him – it’s not just something he’s drawn to, but integral to the way he sees the world.
@Declan and @Harry- Definitely fascinating- I didn’t know that. I wonder if he was born colorblind or if that happened during his life because he made about seven films that don’t really feature neon before arriving at that visual style in the 2010s.
So he said he only found out when his wife was trying on shoes and he couldn’t tell the difference between them, he married in 2007 (they obviously spent time before that though) but that means he probably made at least the whole Pusher trilogy without even realizing he was colour blind.
@Harry — gotcha, very interesting… makes sense that this would mostly be around a 2010s and no development.
The neon demon is his most underrated effort to date. Can i dare to say that i believe it to be his most visually striking achievement. It’s color scheme remains my favorite of his. It’s his tribute to Italian giallo particularly Suspiria and it’s not an unworthy entry in the genre (I think it’s one of the best giallo). The movie also contains carreer best performance by Elle Fanning (deserved an Oscar nom over Streep ☹️☹️☹️).
It’s more of a HR/MS in my opinion.
I’ve told you to do so many studies before already but there’s a lot of Refn on Amazon Prime so of course he would be a great idea, as always you need to watch Valhalla Rising again which I think has a reasonable claim to being the most underrated film in all of cinema.
Found this cool supercut on youtube:
It looks like this might be Refn’s signature shot and something I will definitely keep an eye out for in the future. I wonder if its in The Neon Demon too.
@Harry- Was not aware of this Harry- I love this- thanks for sharing
1. Valhalla Rising – MP
2. Only God Forgives – MP
3. Drive – MS
4. Pusher 3 – HR/MS
5. Pusher II – HR
6. The Neon Demon – R / HR
7. Fear X – R / HR
8. Pusher – R
9. Bronson – R
Love Refn, find him really rewatchable. After watching the Pusher trilogy all in one day this week I’ve started to like him even more. I feel confident that Refn is a very rare writer-director who can both make utterly compelling narrative driven film (Pusher trilogy) and also completely mesmerizing, almost plotless visual cinema (Fear X, Valhalla Rising) when he wants to, wildly succeeding with either path. When he crosses these paths, he’s unstoppable.
Excited for Copenhagen Cowboy which is releasing on Netflix in December.
@Harry- Love to see this Harry- good work. I feel like Refn is one of those who will get discovered/rediscovered by many in the years to come
@Drake – Absolutely, Drive has been insanely popular in internet culture the past few years so I think it’s only time before the rest of his filmography gets explored.
Also, have you seen his interview with William Friedkin on youtube? It isn’t the best interview but they have a really funny dynamic together. Friedkin laughing at Refn for calling Only God Forgives is pretty iconic to me
@Harry – haha that’s amazing- I remember the headline about Refn’s line about his own film but have never seen the interview. I’ll have to check it out.
“When you mentioned 2001 and Citizen Kane, you forgot Drive”
Hilarious quote from that interview
37 on metracritic and 41% on rotten tomatoes for Only God Forgives. I laughed out loud when I saw that
I haven’t seen Drive in like 3 years, but based purely on memory, I think OGF might be stronger. I wish the red/blue Suspiria style lighting was used more outside of the first 20-25 minutes, but the movie was still gorgeous even without it. And I think this is a great example of film form too. Both a MS for me regardless I would probably say