“That’s when you know you have made great cinema: when half love it and half hate it”
So said Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, following the deeply-divided reception to Only God Forgives after its prestigious premiere at Cannes. Whether he meant what he said, or whether it was self-defence to an unexpected reaction, this quote is emblematic of his entire directorial history: polarising.
Over 22 years, the self-proclaimed “Sex Pistols of Cinema” has directed 10 films and garnered a reputation which is hard to define. To some, he is a deservedly critically-acclaimed filmmaker, unique in his arthouse sensibilities; as he puts it, “I bring the singular, the narcissistic, the high art”. To others, he is pretentious, producing languorous films which excel in style over substance. People’s opinion rarely falls in the middle of these two extremes, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating voice in modern cinema.
“Reserved, quiet, and poised, he is fascinating to watch in interviews”
For me, I fall in the former camp, but I do understand those who don’t. Reserved, quiet, and poised, he is fascinating to watch in interviews, and these characteristics reflect much of his work. His films are mannered, stylish, and often drenched in neon, with periods of intense silence punctuated by uncomfortable moments of violence – and all carefully curated to synth-infused techno soundtracks. For many, none of his work encapsulates all of his tropes better than 2011’s Drive.
I love Drive. I mean love. With italics and everything. I even watched it once a week for over a year. Undoubtedly Refn’s most famous film, it propelled both him and its star Ryan Gosling fully into the mainstream – and yet, Drive is not a mainstream film. Unquestionably arthouse, and undeniably adult, it is an enigma – that rare film which was made for a more niche, experimental audience yet also found success in the mass market. Last year’s terrific Blade Runner 2049 was a more recent example of this, and it’s interesting to note that Gosling headlined both.
There are myriad reasons why I adore Drive. A well-worn tale of a getaway driver cleaning up a botched robbery, it’s a simple story executed to perfection; Refn doesn’t waste a scene. The first half is like a dream, a romance between Gosling and his neighbour Carey Mulligan, whose husband is in prison. This results in a beautiful, chaste love focusing on connected spirits over physical intimacy. The second half is like a nightmare, descending into moments of extreme violence, twists and betrayal. It’s an odd tonal shift which caught many audience members off-guard, but the two seemingly-incongruous halves complement each other and add up to the tightest 100 minute whole.
A popular criticism of Refn’s films are their lack of dialogue, but for me this is often a strength. In Drive, Gosling’s loquacious lead, known only as Driver, says only what needs to be said – and uses his face to tell the rest. Gosling’s is an emotive, expressive performance of great depth and nuance. The more verbose performances by his co-stars, such as Ron Perlman, are excellent but excel at a more vocal level than a visual level. Refn’s Bronson (2009) is an exception, featuring a truly outstanding performance from a younger Tom Hardy, quite literally baring it all. All. Shouting, swearing, fighting – it’s a mesmerising, powerhouse performance which Refn directs, and one for which Tom Hardy genuinely should have won an Oscar.
“regardless of criticism, Refn undisputedly creates cinematic experiences”
Refn is often criticised for his use of violence, too. Many call it gratuitous, but Drive justifies it, with only brief, brutal outbursts; their brevity and extremity making them more effective to the story. However, Refn’s most impenetrable work, Only God Forgives, does not succeed here. I’d be the first to call its violence gratuitous.
But regardless of criticism, Refn undisputedly creates cinematic experiences. I managed to see The Neon Demon in cinemas in 2016, despite not being old enough. It was truly one of the greatest cinema experiences of my life. I’ll never forget revelling in how uncomfortable the squirming, small audience was as the film went from depravity to depravity in its jaw-dropping second half, and that’s rare these days – a genuine, physical and vocal reaction in a cinema. That is why Nicolas Winding Refn is my favourite filmmaker.