Thursday, June 23, 2016

Theory Thursday: In Defense of Nicolas Winding Refn

Scene from Neon Demon
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Neon Demon is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Nicolas Winding Refn is a good director.

Scene from Drive

Depending on how ingrained you are in the art house community, you will have come to hate director Nicolas Winding Refn at different points, specifically since his 2011 cult hit Drive. For regular audiences, the film's lack of The Fast and The Furious action nature lead to a lawsuit. Many just felt it was dull, and Ryan Gosling was practically sleepwalking through his role. If this didn't sway you into the hostility camp, then his follow-up Only God Forgives (a film I genuinely hated) likely sealed the deal thanks to its even darker cinematography and more grotesquely violent anti-narrative. The Neon Demon isn't even in wide release yet (somehow), and people are already wanting to boycott the film based on Elle Fanning's blood soaked promotional images. It doesn't help that Refn has had reviews worthy of satire in which he embraces his abrasive side, thinking that the mix of violence and commentary on the fashion industry will produce great results. In fairness, it will produce results that only make sense to him. The question is more on how much longer the good wishes he achieved thanks to Drive will allow him, especially as he has now had back-to-back films booed at their premieres.

The reality is that Refn has been making films for quite some time now. His debut Pusher actually turns 20 years old in August. Even beyond that, he has managed to make such staggering films like Bronson (an early breakout role for Tom Hardy) and a film more in line with his ambient style of today with Valhalla Rising. Like most directors of world cinema, it would be unfair to judge his work based solely on the conventional three act structure. Drive and Bronson likely come closest to achieving this. However, there's something that is often unnerving for people coming to Refn's filmography for the first time. He is a violent director. He is also a very colorful and quiet one who often has set unpleasant images to scores by Cliff Martinez. You'll be forgiven for not liking his work solely because he doesn't approach male aggression in the same way that most others earning big at the box office would. He is violent in a repulsive manner, but he's also a pretty interesting director overall - and one that I think warrants attention even at his worst.

Much like the modern Quentin Tarantino, it may be difficult to separate the artist from their personality. While Tarantino spent the past awards season getting drunk and calling classic composers "ghetto," Refn has mostly been hyping up his ego as a punk director. This alone makes him seem like a ridiculous force before you even see his film. However, anyone who has seen the quaint My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn will be aware that he's just as neurotic as any artist with specific tics. During the short documentary, he is seen filming Only God Forgives and attending the Cannes premiere. He reflects on his unexpected success following Drive, suggesting that he may be trapped in legacy as "the Drive director." There's actual grief in him, even as he criticizes his latest, and most maligned, film to that date. It isn't essential viewing, but it helps to round out a conflicting figure in pop culture that may sound like a caricature during any given press junket.

I suppose that I should back up for a second and talk about why I like Refn despite hating Only God Forgives. The truth is that he is a perplexing artist who benefits from having fetishistic tendencies in both art and violence. It was once pitched that he was an ultraviolent auteur. I am unsure about that, but I will admit that there is something to an art house director prodding audiences in specific ways. For instance, Drive mostly works because of how slowly and ethereally moments blend together, letting the silence consume the tension and convince the viewer that fear is around the corner. Most people wouldn't use Martinez's score to highlight this moment - opting for silence. There's something to Refn making it almost dreamlike as well as beautifully shot. There's a delusion in the study of character that slowly unravels. It was there in Bronson and even in Only God Forgives - it's just a matter of accessibility to the viewer. He makes enough challenging that it rewards further inspection. Even the quiet driving of a car around Los Angeles is giving poignancy thanks to his direction.

This is all before things become violent. This isn't just a bruise to the face or a kink in a step. It's punctuation to the romanticism that preceded it. The beautiful image is suddenly brought to a jarring conclusion by mixing it with a repulsive image. For instance, Bryan Cranston gets his wrist slit in Drive only to have an unnatural amount stem from the wound. It's an embrace of tragedy among the romance that makes for a conflicting yet unique view of cinema. It is jarring, sometimes unintentionally comical, and captures the flaws of aggression as people try to overcome their tension. For those who hate violence, Only God Forgives and its incessant torture may be too much. In fact, Refn is a director who is as off putting as his interviews. However, his vision chooses to reflect the complicated mixture of cinema's dreamlike state, and how pain can sometimes interfere with that vision. It's a clashing of styles, and it creates a middle ground for those who like art house and violence: it's silent and deadly.

I have not seen The Neon Demon as of this publication. Despite how much I loathed Only God Forgives, I still find myself attracted to seeing his latest. There's so much more to his style and approach that may make for mixed results, but he is creating stimulating cinema that has an authentic look. This is largely in part because Refn is color blind and uses bright colors to emphasize aspects of his film. It explains the neon fonts of Drive, and the strange mix of shadows and neon rooms in Only God Forgives. It is a style that has developed over time and services to make his visuals at times singular. Yes, his most notorious attribute is his sudden violence. However, it's also his striking mixture of color that helps his films stand out from a line-up of directors who attempt to make very similar films.

It also helps that I consider Martinez and Refn to be one of the best composers and directors pairing in recent years. While I haven't heard the music yet for The Neon Demon, their previous two collaborations have pretty much delivered two of the best soundtracks in the decade. With the ethereal thuds of Drive and the raging electronics of Only God Forgives (which I liked more), they are partners in created a nuanced and often deranged landscape that can't help but crawl under your skin. Martinez in general has done great work over the years, but there's something about Refn personally that brings out something even more authentic and engaging. I think that the music helps to add to the dreamlike atmosphere of the films, and ends up making them extra artsy, for better or worse. 

I suppose that it would be difficult to flat out say that Refn is a great director. I personally am still leery if he'll bounce back from his previous movie. However, I still think he's a good director whose interesting style is often overshadowed by his ego and fetishistic tendencies. Still, almost everything that he has made before Drive is a compelling and worthwhile watch if you want to understand how world cinema has explored violence through colorful, meditative film over the past few decades. Bronson is definitely worth checking out solely for Hardy's dedicated performance. However, the study of frustrated male aggression may be too much for some and I understand if it keeps you from liking his work as a whole. Still, he is doing things that create a lingering impact on the viewer. Even if that's not always the best thing - it's thankfully the sign of someone who knows what they're doing.

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