Why this might not seem so easy
The son of two Danish filmmakers, cinematographer Vibeke Winding and editor and director Anders Refn, Nicolas Winding Refn has gained a reputation as one of the most significant European directors of the past few decades. Reactions to his work have often been polarised, however. His films have garnered much critical acclaim, but have also received derision for their dense stylisation, strange performances and excessive violence.
Spanning from the mid-1990s to the present, his film and TV work may not be expansive, but he’s taken on a host of new forms, styles and genres along the way, including realist crime drama, neo-noir, fantasy and horror. No one film gives the full picture. Refn may be associated with the last decade’s wave of neon-lit, 80s aesthetics, but throughout his career his films contain a strong sense of grit and violence that goes beyond trivial pastiche.
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His choices in style are not simply thin veneers, but deeply affect the flow of his films. From the grounded realism of his Pusher trilogy (1996 to 2005) to the abstract, colourful, musically driven sequences of his later works like The Neon Demon (2016), each of his films is host to a number of eccentricities that can be disorientating for the first-time viewer but reward exploration.
The best place to start – Drive
Neo-noir cult hit Drive (2011) is Refn’s most famous and accessible film. It takes place in the by turns sun-soaked and nocturnal streets of LA, following the taciturn Ryan Gosling as a nameless getaway driver moonlighting as a stunt driver in Hollywood car chases, in between his job as a mechanic for the downtrodden Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Following some time spent bonding with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), the driver becomes embroiled in a mob plot after taking part in a robbery in order to aid Irene’s convict husband (Oscar Isaac).
The film sports a number of inspirations, from its source material by novelist James Sallis to other notable driving and heist films, especially Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) and Michael Mann’s Thief (1981). These influences can be seen not simply in the film’s retro aesthetics, but in the grounded action sequences, such as the opening chase scene in which the majority of shots are taken from inside the driver’s car. As in Hill’s chases, this lets us in on the driver’s perspective, creating extra tension when we see the police give chase.
The film’s cast is another key strength, with Albert Brooks bringing an uncharacteristically intimidating presence as Shannon’s financier – mobster Bernie Rose.
Drive’s soundtrack proved a sensation. Cliff Martinez’s score shifts from pulsing and blaring electronic beats, adding to the momentum of the chase sequences, to hazy atmospheric pieces, drawing on the emotion in Gosling and Mulligan’s long wordless glances. Meanwhile, the film’s iconic opening chase sequence is set to the thumping instrumental ‘Tick of the Clock’ by Chromatics and, elsewhere, the lyrics of synthpop tracks by the likes of Kavinsky, College and Desire help to convey the inner thoughts and feelings of the, at times, conversationally challenged leads.
What to watch next
Taking a step back from Refn’s stylised, colour-saturated later works of the late 2000s and onwards, it’s worth going back to the beginning of his career. His startling debut was Pusher (1996), a gritty depiction of a wandering, low-level drug pusher roaming the streets of Copenhagen, desperately hoping to scrounge up enough money to satisfy the drug lords to whom he is indebted after a deal gone wrong.
Pusher is an uncompromising portrayal of the ruthlessness of the criminal underworld, as the protagonist Frank (Kim Bodnia) is envisioned as a man with almost no morals or limits, violently snapping and turning on people out of desperation. The film also features the film acting debut of then dancer/gymnast Mads Mikkelsen as Frank’s oafish friend, Tonny. Pusher became a trilogy, with Pusher II following in 2004 and Pusher 3 coming in 2005, each sequel shifting to focus on a different protagonist.
Outside of the Pusher trilogy, another striking success of Refn’s career is the 2008 biopic Bronson. Telling the story of Britain’s most violent prisoner, the film centres on one of Tom Hardy’s finest and most outrageous performances, as Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson. Equally as fierce as Refn’s previous works, the film follows Bronson’s ‘career’ and quest for fame as he’s moved from prison to prison, with each violent action of his met by a number of horrors within the British penal system. Complete with theatrical interludes of Bronson on stage telling his life story to a dispassionate audience, as well as a haunting dance sequence in Rampton Hospital (or as Bronson calls it “the funny farm”), Refn’s film creates an unsettling juxtaposition between Bronson’s dreams of celebrity and the reality of his incarceration.
In 2009, Refn and Mikkelsen reunited for Valhalla Rising, a brutal period piece centred on Norse Christians venturing to the Holy Land. Over on Amazon Prime in 2019, Refn also created (alongside comic book writer/cartoonist Ed Brubaker) and directed the 10-episode neo-noir miniseries Too Old to Die Young starring Miles Teller and Augusto Aguilera.
Where not to start
Following the success of Drive, Refn took his leading man Ryan Gosling to Bangkok for the divisive Only God Forgives (2013), a hyper-real exploration of sexuality and violence. Everything in this film is considerably harsher and less accessible than its predecessor, with drawn-out, abstract, almost silent sequences and opaque stylisation favoured over conventional dialogue and narrative.
Gone are the retro earworms, while the sunny roads and cool night-time cityscape of LA is swapped out for heavy neon hues and the sweaty, bloody interior of a boxing club. While the driver was a quiet loner, but a romantic at heart, here Gosling plays a repressed, violent expat drug dealer, locked in an unnerving Freudian relationship with his mother, whose caustic portrayal by Kristin Scott-Thomas is one of the film’s highlights.
Almost as divisive is his following film, The Neon Demon, which starts as an examination of the shallow objectification of the fashion industry and eventually makes its way into murder, sacrifice and cannibalism. This isn’t to say that these films aren’t worth watching. Both are rich examples of Refn’s stylistic filmmaking. But they are not ideal entry points: their style can be a little impenetrable and their substance occasionally hard to grasp.