Few filmmakers can polarize and captivate an audience like the Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn started his career with great international success with his Pusher Trilogy before being acclaimed in the United States with films such as Bronson and the cult tube To drive, with Ryan Gosling. Refn’s filmography is a diverse mix of styles and stories ranging from film noir, crime drama, and Viking epic, to name a few.
While reactions to filmmaking and Refn’s performance elicit strong reactions from critics and moviegoers alike, there’s no denying that his work has had a unique influence on modern cinema. Some have argued over the quality of Refn’s filmography, but each of his films has something to take from it, whether the viewer likes it or not. While creating and directing the dark HBO miniseries Too old to die youngRefn hasn’t made a feature film in six years, since the box office flop The neon demon followed his bad reception Only God forgives. Whatever the iconoclast has in store for the future, here we delve into Nicolas Winding Refn’s weird, twisted, yet utterly fascinating catalog of films, to see which titles reign supreme.
5 Rise of Valhalla
Fascinated by human violence and brutality, Refn approaches the Viking epic with Rise of Valhalla is both haunting and surprisingly stimulating. The film follows the adventures of Norse warrior One Eye (Madds Mikkelsen) as he travels with a group of Christian crusaders to find the holy land. Rise of Valhalla relies less on plot and more on atmosphere, and Refn creates a world full of brutality and beauty. The film is also a solid showcase for Mikkelsen’s stoic yet powerful performance, and Refn wisely avoids filming. Rise of Valhalla in an explosive traditional epic in favor of performance focus and atmospheric setting. Sometimes the movie may test the patience of viewers looking for a more standard adventure, but Refn’s measured approach and abstract storytelling produce some truly compelling results.
Rise of Valhalla had a low-key performance upon its theatrical release, but garnered both praise and bemusement from audiences. In terms of filmography, Refn’s work on Rise of Valhalla has proven it can fit a larger canvas while maintaining its individual style. While it may not be his most accessible or moving work, Rise of Valhalla is still a captivating experience for those willing to confront it on its own terms.
4 Only God forgives
Following its critical success of 2011 To drive was always going to be a stiff feat for Refn. In 2013, he reunited with star Ryan Gosling for the haunting and visceral revenge flick Only God forgives. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, an American living in Hong Kong who finds himself wrapped up in a revenge scheme when his brother is murdered by a Thai police chief. Like much of Refn’s work, Only God forgives is full of moody atmosphere and moves at a deliberate pace. Refn’s focus is on the characters and their inner worlds, and Only God forgives ends up being a haunting and elegantly filmed experience. Gosling’s performance here is once again very internal, and Refn also gets a hilariously deadly performance from Kirsten Scott Thomas.
Upon release, Only God forgives was met with mixed responses and didn’t quite have the impact of Refn’s earlier films; most people probably forget it even exists. Looking back, however, Only God forgives has compelling qualities all its own, and Refn’s exotic visual flair adds a unique rhythm to the proceedings. Critical appraisal also changed in the years that followed, and Only God forgives began to be viewed more favorably since. While it may admittedly lack the emotional weight of his earlier works, Only God forgives proves to be a haunting and artful experience, even in its most polarizing form.
3 The neon demon
Refn’s fascination with the underbelly of human nature (beneath the glitz, glamor and neon of an artifice) is a common motif in his films, so he would naturally be drawn to the world of modeling. In 2016 The neon demon, Refn explores the inner world of modeling like a gothic thriller; the film follows aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she finds herself wrapped up in a mysterious cult while navigating her new surroundings. Refn’s visual style is both surreal and flamboyant, and he satirizes the fashion industry while delving into psychodrama and horror elements. Refn also uses a stellar female cast and gets strong performances from Fanning, Jenna Malone, and Bella Heathcote, as each performer truly engages with the twisted, surreal nature of the film.
The neon demon was seen by some as a return to form for Refn after the aimless oddity of Only God forgives, and gained a cult following while being hailed as an empowering film. It’s a solid showcase for Refn’s talents and delivers a haunting, dark and wicked time. the neon demon is Refn’s last feature film, but it proves that Refn still has plenty of fascinating ideas to explore on the big screen.
By 2008, Nicolas Winding Refn had made a handful of films in the United States, but eventually broke through with the darkly comic and wildly inventive Bronson. The film has a star turn of Tom Hardy in a starring role as a prisoner named Charles Bronson who has become known as one of the UK’s most violent inmates. Refn’s take on the subject defies convention and plays out like dark comedy and twisted fantasy within Bronson to manage. Hardy gives a powerful performance and sinks into the vicious but magnetic personality of Bronson. Refn also doesn’t hold back when it comes to exposing the brutality of Bronson nature, and he stages the action in his grotesque but artful way.
Upon release, Bronson garnered strong critical acclaim and helped make Refn a standout talent. The film also helped solidify the career of a young Tom Hardy and is considered one of Refn’s finest works. Bronson proved to be a solid springboard for Refn’s career, as he proved his abstract style could translate into accessible ways.
1 To drive
One of the most distinct films of the 2010s, Nicolas Winding Refn penned a stark yet heartfelt love letter to 80s crime cinema and stoic anti-heroes with To drive. The film follows a mysterious driver (Ryan Gosling) who does stunts by day and is a getaway driver by night, who gets caught up in the fallout of a job gone horribly wrong. To drive manages to be so captivating because it fuses Refn’s visceral style with a lush beauty that elevates its source material. Refn’s mastery of his medium, from sound and cinematography to his sets, is seamlessly orchestrated, and he elicits genuine emotion from the tragic romance between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. To drive also subverts expectations with its cast, with Albert Brooks giving a menacing performance with his equally stacked supporting cast, including Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Oscar Issac, among others.
To drive (like all Refn films) had a low-key box office performance, but gained a strong cult following with audiences and positive critical reception. The film is widely considered Refn’s finest film and helped solidify him as a standout talent. With To drive, Refn displays the strongest showcase yet for his unique talents and creates something both artful and accessible that still holds up today.
The Drive director reunites with actor Ryan Gosling for this thriller, in theaters July 19.
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