Few other filmmakers working today have such an equal amount of cult cache, arthouse goodwill, and virulent detractors as Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. With only nine features under his belt – three of which make up a trilogy – he’s assuredly left a noticeable mark on 21st Century Cinema. And even within the less that fifteen years he’s been working, he already found ways to provoke, thrill, disgust, and baffle audiences while nearly destroying and rebuilding his career on more than one occasion.
With the Twitch Film sponsored and curated TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective With Blood on His Hands: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn (beginning on Wednesday, October 23rd at 9:30pm with Refn’s special Carte Blache selection, Andy Milligan’s trashy 1973 grindhouse flick Fleshpot on 42nd Street, and running until Tuesday, November 5th), the filmmaker’s career is looked at from start to finish. Here now, our film writers and Phil Brown look at their favourite films from one of the most talked about and uncompromising filmmakers in the world today.
The Pusher Trilogy
Nicolas Winding Refn kicked off his career at the tender age of 24 with a gut punch crime thriller known as Pusher. Heavily influenced by 70s American crime flicks like Mean Streets, the film was a sugar rush of violence, vulgarity, and style unlike anything the Danish film industry had ever seen. It instantly put Refn on the map and introduced the world to the joys of Mads Mikkelsen. It also weirdly sparked controversy between Refn, his crew, and the Dogme 95 folks who stole many of Pusher’s techniques for their filmmaking manefesto. That feud would have rocked the film world in the late 90s if anyone outside of Denmark had either noticed or cared.
Almost ten years later, Refn got the whole band back together for Pusher II and III. Weirdly, it wasn’t a planned trilogy. Refn cranked out the sequels to make some cash after Fear X bankrupted him and his production company. Flying by the seat of his pants, Refn essentially improvised Pusher II and III with a cast of non-actors and yet they are possibly even better than the original film. Gritty, darkly comedic, depressingly real, exquisitely acted, and ultra violent, The Pusher Trilogy just might be the greatest crime movie series you’ve never seen thanks to the subtitles. It’s time to rectify that right now. (Phil Brown)
Pusher I: Thursday, October 24, 6:30pm Pusher II: Saturday, October 26, 7:00pm
Pusher III: Saturday, October 26, 10:00pm
After knocking the international film community on its ass with Pusher, Nicolas Winding Refn returned with Bleeder (Thursday, October 24, 9:30pm), a much more difficult sell yet a no less fascinating movie. Heavily influenced by 90s filmmaking trends, the flick is best described as what would happen if Gaspar Noe/I Stand Alone raped Kevin Smith/Clerks. Refn spins dueling, intertwining narratives. One is about a middle aged man with a pregnant girlfriend who undergoes a mental breakdown and turns psychotically violent. The other is a surprisingly sweet, if bizarre love story between an awkward video store clerk played by Mads Mikkelsen and beautiful lady Refn’s wife. Somewhere in there is an underground screening series of filthy, violent movies that connects the two men. Bleeder is a weird one off experiment in Refn’s storied career, but also the film that feels like his most personal, verging on being autobiographical. It’s also never been officially released in North America on DVD, Bluray, or through streaming services, so this screening is a rare opportunity to see one of Refn’s most unique and entertaining efforts. (Phil Brown)
In 2003, Refn nearly lost his entire career, all his money, his sanity, and his health because one film was received disastrously. His first English language film coming off of Pusher and Bleeder, the almost otherworldly neo-noir and Hubert Selby adaptation Fear X(Friday, October 25th, 8:45pm) , went over like a lead balloon at Sundance and quickly disappeared from release radars around the world. The story of a mall security guard (played by John Turturro) trying to find out more information regarding his wife’s murder might be one of his most successful and misunderstood provocations. Boasting great performances from Turturro and James Remar as the top cop implicated in the killing, Refn delivers his most openly hallucinatory work. It can be a bit tough to follow and never finds a way to even come up with a set of rules to play by. It’s a worthy watch for the adventurous viewer or true completist, and far from the reputation it’s received as his weakest film.
But the failure of Fear X made Refn almost persona non grata in financing circles, and it bankrupted his own production company. After putting everything had on the line and keen on getting the Pusher Trilogy back on track, Refn had a hell of a time constructing a vastly more problematic to craft follow up. In the documentary Gambler (Sunday, October 27th, 1:00pm), director Phie Ambo (Free the Mind) chronicles Refn’s woes and faults in a style the subject would truly appreciate: raw, self-effacing, and at times incredibly tough to take.
This one’s a doozy. Possibly Nicolas Winding Refn’s finest hour, Bronson (Sunday, October 27, 6:00pm) was the film that put Tom Hardy on the international filmmaking map (so if you hate that Bane voice, you’ve kind of got Refn to blame). It tells the story of self-named real life British prisoner Charles Bronson, who has served the longest time in prison in the history of the UK and is considered the country’s most dangerous man behind bars. Charlie was first locked up as a teenager for a quick robbery and never left thanks to his atrocious behavior ever since. He’s one of those folks made to live in a cage and he went ahead and pioneered a shaved scalp and massive mustache combo to look the part. Now, put Refn in charge of that story and he’ll deliver a movie that is a darkly comedic take on celebrity filled with theatrical (even musical) interludes. It’s a movie truly unlike anything else (even amongst Refn’s eclectic back catalogue) and demands to be seen for Hardy’s stunning performance alone. Hardy so completely disappears into the role that chances are it’ll take you a few seconds to even recognize him as Charles Bronson. But once you put the pieces together, you’ll realize that Hardy might be the most talented actor of his generation and Refn might be the most insane director of his. (Phil Brown)
Quite possibly the most intriguing and biggest departure from his entire filmography, the savage and almost ethereally bloody Valhalla Rising (Sunday, October 27th, 9:00pm) reunited Refn with Bleeder leading man and recent Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen with decidedly haunting results. Taking place way beyond Refn’s usual frame of reference and going all the way back to the year 100 with the man who would be Hannibal playing a superbadass warrior with one eye. On a boat bound for Jerusalem, things go from bad to worse in this dreamlike journey that actually feels like a real Viking myth unfolding before one’s eyes. Much like a lot of Refn films, it still turns people off (although it does have possibly the best disembowelling in film history), but it’s also his most visually and technically accomplished work that will leave fans of it wishing he has another chance to tell this kind of a story with this much ambition and artfulness.
The film that launched a thousand memes, gags, jokes, and a newfound love for 80s sounding Euro electropop, Drive (Tuesday, October 29th, 9:00pm) marked Refn’s first courtship with mainstream appreciation. The story of a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) who wants to help a neighbour (Carey Mulligan) that he’s sweet on, Drive carried Refn’s abilities as an accomplished visual filmmaker, but replaced his normally headier and sometimes inscrutable themes with a welcome and almost razor sharp simplicity. Boasting great performances from Gosling and a truly menacing Albert Brooks as the primary villain, Drive certainly harkened back to a bygone era in action filmmaking, but in a decidedly less than nostalgic fashion. It’s a bloody tale of vengeance with a glossy sheen, and a far better film than the one he would choose to follow it with.
Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is also one of his most divisive. Hot on the heels of the release of his breakout American hit Drive, Refn reteamed with Ryan Gosling for Only God Forgives (Tuesday, November 5, 8:45pm), a dirty tale of bare knuckle underground boxing and drug smuggling in Thailand…or at least that’s how the marketing machine made it sound. In truth, Refn delivered a twisted nightmare movie that has far more in common with his work in Fear X or Valhalla Rising than it does with Drive or the Pusher series. It’s a surreal, Freudian, dreamscape vision of Bangkok in which a stoic, silent Gosling (in Refn’s world, is there any other kind?) is emotionally abused by his trashy drug lord mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and discovers an even more terrifying surrogate father figure in a psychotic retired cop whose love of torture is matched only by his love of karaoke. It’s a weird film with more style than substance that defies audience expectations with such glee that can practically hear Refn cackling in the corner at some scenes knowing just how deeply he’s angered and confused most of his audience (especially during the climatic fight sequence). It’s a film most people will hate and a precious few will love, but I’m certain Refn wouldn’t want it any other way. (Phil Brown)
Refn will provide special video introductions to Fleshpot on 42nd Street and Bleeder, and will provide a special Skype introduction for Pusher. For more information and for tickets, please visit TIFF.NET.