If you're a director who's just blown Hollywood away with a beautifully-shot romance movie about a stunt driver, what do you do for your follow up feature? Well, if you're
Nicolas Winding Refn
you make the not-very-Hollywood-friendly
But you keep the same actor as the lead role.
Set in the murky underworld of Bangkok,
Only God Forgives
, is another gorgeously shot film that displays Refn's meticulous eye for a captivating image. It's also become something of an opinion-divider when it comes to audiences.
But that's what Refn's movies do. Drive was perhaps the exception that proved the rule because it became a cultural event. You heard the soundtrack, you bought the clothes. It had a seductive aesthetic and a mood that just made you want to keep rewatching it and trying, somehow—but mostly through wearing a scorpion-motif jacket—to emulate some of Ryan Gosling's Steve McQueen-cool.
Like much of Refn's oeuvre it could be wild and unrestrained and also portrayed an outlaw—a character who is alluring and tender, yet brutal. But Refn's movies aren't meant to comfort you, instead they challenge the viewer. Wilfully disruptive, free of convention, they're unsettling but you can't take your eyes off them. They're movies that seem about to burst from the very frames and narratives that contain them. And this idea of loss of control is central to how Refn sees creativity and filmmaking.
"Art needs to grow and move and change, but the idea that you can control art and make the perfect solution is the exact enemy of creativity," he says in the video above. His approach to filmmaking is summed up perfectly when he discloses the film that got him into making movies: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A movie, he says, that showed him film was an artform, not just about a story, but an emotion. Just like his own movies.
As an accompaniment to our profile on Refn, below are some stills from a few of his most seminal films.
Part one of what became a trilogy and Refn's inaugural film as director, it follows a dealer on the streets of Copenhagen who locks horns with a Croatian kingpin. It has a documentary, hand-held camera style to it and features an unresolved ending that is a hallmark of Refn's auteur filmmaking.
Fear X (2003)
Starring John Turturro and co-written by Refn with Hubert Selby Jr.—you can probably deduce from that that it's not going to be a barrel of laughs. It follows a man as he seeks to find out what happened surrounding the death of his wife, shot by a sniper at a shopping center. Turturro plays up the tortured individual well and gets to exercise his catalogue of forlorn expressions. It's Refn's first English-language film and also features a brutally minimalist soundtrack by Brian Eno.
Refn's films are perfect cult movie material and this film's blending of horror and humor, where the two are blurred until you're not sure which is which, is a great example of why. Its queasy brew tells the story of Charles Bronson, a British criminal who became a celebrity. It brings a surreal edge to his lively life, with a soundtrack that includes Wagner and the Pet Shop Boys.
This just had to be included, eventhough it's entirely obvious and predictable. Ittooka classic character from another genre, the strong-silent Gary Cooper Western-type, and reappropriated it for a hyper-stylised 80s-enthused crime-romance genre movie. It's full of Refn's trademark contrasting elements, like angelic love story versus merciless criminals, along with juxtaposing music and images that don't quite correlate. This gives the film an unnerving, slightly uncanny sensation: an unreal quality reflected in the high sheen of the nighttime driving scenes that populate the film.