"Violence is much like sex, it's all about the build up!"
It was in late 2011 that I treated myself to a double bill night at my local picture house. Both films were truly eagerly awaited and first up was Kevin Smith's criminally ignored "Red State" and next up was "Drive" from Norwegian born Director Nicholas Winding Refn. Drive has everything, eclectic 1980's style synthesiser pop, brooding and unnerving tension dripping through every scene, a love story that may resonate with more of us than we care to admit to, and the next President of the USA, Ryan Gosling. I jest of course, but Ryan Gosling is the nearest we have today to a rock'n'roll movie star.
Ryan Gosling also stars in the Director's 2013 offering "Only God Forgives" and my fan film blog details Nicolas Winding Refn's last five films, with "Valhalla Rising", "Bronson" and "The Neon Demon" sandwiching his cinematic partnership with Gosling.
Between 1996 and 2005 Refn also helmed a further five films "Pusher", "Bleeder", "Fear X", "With Blood on my Hands: Pusher II" and "I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III". But my fan appreciation covers his directorial gems from 2008 onward.
Nicolas Winding Refn is also a prolific Writer/Producer, from his first film Pusher in 1996 through the majority of his subsequent films through to his latest controversial offering of The Neon Demon in 2016.
Written by Director Refn and Brock Norman Brock, the narrative of Charles Bronson's life story is told in three very distinctive ways, weaving a narration from Hardy as Bronson together with straight to camera narration from Bronson dressed in a blue prison uniform and a third more surrealistic strand as Bronson the showman and celebrity he wishes to be, performs on a stage in front of an audience as he narrates his life story. Here he is dressed in a standard civilian black suit but often with his face painted in a mock court jester style. These distinctive styles of story telling blend with Bronson's childhood and his years through various prisons and mental institutions and is reminiscent of Andrew Dominik's 2000 tale of "Chopper", with both films weaving bloody and brutal violence with dark humour and a dark blend of surrealism. Aside from the violence, which is shocking and brutal but nowhere near the level I remembered seeing on first viewing, the film's true stand out scenes are when Bronson is on stage, playing to the crowd and recounting his life story. This is exemplified by the self titled "Charlie versus Broadmoor" with Bronson singing and dancing his way through actual stock footage of his rooftop vigils being projected on the screen behind him. A further stand out scene is clearly a nod to "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" and is tragically portrayed until "It's a Sin" by The Pet Shop Boys is played! A stellar performance from Tom Hardy is supported by Matt King as fellow inmate "Paul", Amanda Burton as "Mum" and Hugh Ross as "Uncle Jack".
As at 2008, Charles Bronson had spent 34 years in prison, 30 years in solitary confinement and only 69 days as a free man. He remains in Wakefield prison to this day, changing his name regularly but with no sign of parole.
This six act biblical and bloody tale of Christians and Pagans, of revenge and bloody carnage is personified in the quietest and most reflective second act, "Silent Warrior", which is briefly dissected below:
Following the nightmares of the previous night we cut to a bright and partially sun lit daytime scene, and the Act's pivotal moment as One Eye and The Boy approach a heavily armed Christian Army Camp. A stand off ensues between the Leader and One Eye, with the boy responding to the Leader's questions as if acting as interpreter which startles and aggravates the questioning Leader. With One Eye staring impassively ahead despite being asked "Why does the boy speak for you?", the Leader draws his sword before he is reproached by one of his soldiers.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. I've heard about him".
"He's one of the biggest savages in Sutherland"
In a film with such sparse dialogue, Act 2 is both the most dialogue heavy and indeed exposition heavy act of the entire film. The Leader, surrounded by his army of soldiers continues to question One Eye but he remains silent as the boy continues to speak on his behalf and answer the numerous questions from the Leader. One Eye is asked to join their crusade and "God's own soldiers - heading for Jerusalem" but he continues to remain mute and impassive despite both the Leader and his soldier's pleas. He could wash away his sins by joining and only when told that real pain lies in the soul does One Eye react, fixing the soldier with an icy stare. The act ends with a dissolving merger of One Eye, still staring impassively ahead, and the icy, dark blue of the ocean that lays before him.
"Boy, where does he come from?"
"He was brought up from hell"
Biblical references abound in this ultra violent at times, tale of ridding one's sins and creating a new "holy land". As with all Nicolas Winding Refn films, the violence is sporadic but brutal, bloody and fully on camera with additional dream/imagined scenes of the coming carnage often shot through the prism of a blood red screen. Shockingly violent at times, the savages have to be slain for the holy land to be created as they follow their cross, "God's Will" and "I'm going to show them a man of God has arrived". Written by the Director and Roy Jacobsen, it feels too stylised and too damn slow but that's maybe damning this admittedly painstaking work of art with faint praise! As Winding Refn jokingly said on the set of his 2013 release "Only God Forgives", "Violence is much like sex, it's all about the build up!". Here, and particularly in the gorgeous slow motion captured prolonged build ups to the ends of Acts five and six, the Director is at his most tension building and fetishistic best. And despite a beautiful ending, these sums do not make up a whole part of a fantastic film, but that was to come in 2011. And it arrived in spades!
Based on the book by James Sallis with a screenplay from Hossein Amini, Drive is very much a Nicolas Winding Refn film containing many of his accomplished touchstones: jolting and unexpected graphic violence, brilliantly captured slow motion segments heightening the build up to significant scenes, thorough and nuanced characters that shine from the screen, through to a sublime soundtrack that is a very distinctive character all of it's own. Throw in beautiful wide city scape shots reminiscent of Michael Mann's crystal clear visions in "Heat", driving sequences that take your breath away and a beautiful love story at the film's core and you have a truly outstanding and wonderful film. The 1980's tinged soundtrack from regular collaborator Cliff Martinez is a real joy and is supplemented superbly by individual songs such as "Tick of the Clock" by Chromatics and particularly "A Real Hero" by College (Feat Electric Youth). This track compliments a drive through a dry underpass perfectly, encapsulating the mood of the film and is one of the many stand out scenes. Director of Photography Newton Thomas Sigel deserves immense credit for bringing Refn's vision for the film to life, from the wide city scape shots through to the simple use of mirrors and reflections, and the angles captured during the multiple car chase scenes.
Bryan Cranston is magnificent as "Shannon" the Driver's Manager, Agent and would be buddy. Scatty, nervous and portraying an almost permanent state of being on edge and looking over his shoulder, he has a heart of gold and a loving affection for the Driver, whom he always calls "The Kid". Shannon loves the kid, cars and the repair garage he owns but away from these familiar staples of his life he struggles, with his back against the wall and in the debt of two local gangsters. Both of these gangsters play against their usual character type with Albert Brooks in particular, bringing "Bernie Rose" to life with all the charm of a venomous snake! Ron Perlman also excels as his more exuberant, but charmless partner "Nino". Bernie and Nino are partners, nefarious and illegal partners full of their own self importance but also streetwise and utterly ruthless. Shannon and Nino clearly have a long "history" and it's to Nino whom Shannon saves his ire for a whispered rebuke of "He wouldn't be able to find pussy in a whorehouse". All three performances, with Ron Perlman more in a cameo role, are truly stellar in every way and are ably supported by further cameo roles from a pre Coen Brothers influenced Oscar Isaac as "Standard" and Christina Hendricks as "Blanche". There are further cameos from James Biberi as "Cook" and Russ Tamblyn as "Doc" but special recognition must be paid to Kaden Leos as "Benicio", more of which later.
However, in a twisted movie love affair we must have a maiden to go with our male and Carey Mulligan provides a career defining portrayal of "Irene". Before Drive, Carey Mulligan was a rising star in "Public Enemies" and "Never Let Me Go" and has since excelled in the brilliant "Shame" and "Inside Llewyn Davis". But here she portrays unrequited love and desire brilliantly with every awkward gesture and a sweet, sweet smile. Mother to Benicio and wife of Standard, she is falling in love with someone else and her every look and every desire is yearning to be with him. Irene and the Driver share so many longing looks and half looks and it's their non verbal language that shines as they share so little direct dialogue. This is purposely so as it breaks the heart still further and brilliantly portrayed, and very subtly at times by a stunning Carey Mulligan, her Irene just so desperately wants to be with her "kid".
Driver (Ryan Gosling) Also affectionately known as the kid but this vagueness and lack of background is very deliberate throughout the film to maintain the mystique of the kid, this stoic, man about town, genteel young man. Star turns in the magnificent "Blue Valentine", "Ides of March" and "The Place Beyond the Pines" sandwich Ryan Gosling's career high watermark performance here as The Driver. From his first introduction, framed with his back to the camera but visible through the hotel room window and merged against the beautiful city scape vista he calmly describes in his methodical instructions to an unseen client, to the heart and gut wrenching finale', Ryan Gosling firmly establishes himself as one of Cinema's bright new lights.
As the title suggests, he's a Driver, both professionally and for added kicks but remains a loner of sorts, meticulous enough to destroy all traces of his past life and able to walk away, or indeed drive away from any situation at a moment's notice. Strong willed and piercing eyes that draw you into the screen, his laconic style betrays his unseen inner belief of right and wrong, and social justice. Clad in his distinctive scorpion motif jacket, tooth pick forever dangling from his mouth, his life is dominated by driving and cars, whether as a movie stuntman or working at Shannon's car repair garage. But meeting neighbours Irene and Benicio reaffirm his outlook on life forever but with the obstacles in their path, will it be too late?
As previously alluded to, The Driver and Irene share so many heart rending scenes of a love that cannot be theirs, but equally affecting are the scenes shared with Irene's son Benicio. The two kids bring out the best in each other and as their friendship grows so does The Driver's protection of Benicio, and their shared staring games are one of the film's real highlights. Never rushed or flustered and with the deliberately minimal dialogue more than made up for with his every look and gesture, this is a stellar and career high performance from Ryan Gosling.
The film as a whole only garnered one Oscar Nomination (Sound Editing) but was fully deserving of so many more. This oft violent but heart breakingly sweet tale of unrequited love is Nicolas Winding Refn at a career defining moment for me and Drive vies for position in my already overcrowded favourite films of all time. Stunningly beautiful and beautifully stunning, Drive never fails to resonate profoundly with me and is a true classic for the ages.
"Remember girls, no matter what happens, keep your eyes closed"
With opening titles in Thai and complimented by English subtitles, this latest noir tinged revenge thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn immediately begins with "Julian" (Ryan Gosling) pensively staring straight ahead whilst shrouded in shadows. The colour palette of red is firmly established the opening scenes.
We cut to a muay thai boxing match in a club he owns and runs and the colour palette of red is again a dominating theme, from the large boxing club motif behind the ring to the winning boxer's gloves and shorts through to the shirts of two unnamed patrons of the club standing at ring side. But the scene is soaked in the colour red, with shards of reddish light adding to the overall and eye catching red tone. A small package is surreptitiously passed hand to hand between patrons as another muay thai boxing match begins. We cut to "Billy" (Tom Burke) in a backstage dressing room clad in a red shirt paying the victorious boxer with a deadpan admonishment "Don't spend it all in one place". Both Billy and Julian are in the dressing room and both are shrouded in shadows with Julian, his back to the wall and still staring passively and pensively ahead. Fade to Black.
Billy leaves the club and walks across neon lit streets before entering a local whorehouse and requesting a repugnant and repulsive desire. Frustrated at the response from the Manager and dragged away from the intercom between himself and the young girls behind the glass, he violently smashes a bottle over the head of the Manager and enters the room housing the young girls before violently attacking a random girl. Bloodied and bruised, the scene ends with Billy staring at another young prostitute sitting by the side of the road. We cut again to Julian staring thoughtfully at his hands and making a fist, all deliberately pensively and slowly before turning off the lights at his now empty club, the red boxing club motif predominant again in a room bathed in red as the lights are dimmed.
Slowly and deliberately, "Lieutenant Chang" (Vithaya Pansringarm) walks to the roadside where we last saw Billy and he enters the building behind and into a blood soaked room. He pans around the room to see the bloodied corpse of a young girl lying on the floor. The camera slowly pans from an unmoved Chang staring passively at Billy, turning to face Chang, his face spattered with blood following the violent murder of the young girl. No words are exchanged. An older man is shown into the room and Chang asks "Why did you let this happen?" before he retreats from the room after giving the older man free reign to wreck revenge on the murderer, which he does, framed in shadows behind the closed door. "Come with me" orders Chang, as the scene, and the opening twelve minutes reaches its climax.
Lit only by a spotlight and the headlamps of the police car the older man, his shirt now spattered in red blood, is on his knees pleading for his life and confessing to the anger and rage at the murder of his daughter. Chang slowly approaches the older man, explaining why he's going to do what he's about to do but drawing a samurai sword from behind his back and striking the man off camera. The scene ends with Chang staring impassively at the camera.
This 90 minute bloody revenge thriller is often brutally violent and shocking whilst weaving intricate character narratives through a web of drugs, criminality and family dominance. The violence alluded to above is only a forerunner to some brutally violent scenes and very much a theme of Director Refn's preponderance for fetishistic and graphic violence. However and very bizarrely, these are often juxtaposed against Chang singing upbeat yet mournful songs on stage in a Bangkok club. Make of that what you will! There are numerous other intriguing themes running throughout the film with the red colour palette being an obvious metaphor for blood and revenge. The film is quite literally dripping in this palette with numerous scenes resplendent in red, striking in many scenes, a little more subtle in others. The film moves very much at it's own pace with characters moving slowly and deliberately. There are slow motion captured segments of a scene but surprisingly very little, the rest are the characters themselves, particularly Julian and Chang, who move quietly, pensively and reflectively. Along with the colour palette, shadows are dominant and perhaps yet another metaphor for revenge as our characters stalk from within the shadows, and returning Director of Photography Larry Smith (Bronson) deserves immense credit for blending these together. They are obvious themes but no less striking. The film is both stylish and stylised, with rigorous attention to detail in every shot. One further theme is the tailing off of conversations or disguising with music, under the supervision of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.
The cast of mainly Thai actors are headed by Pansringarm as Chang, an almost mirror image to the Western headliner Gosling in the role of Julian. In a film of minimal dialogue, both portray their feelings and character narrative through their pensive approach but both are bubbling underneath with rage. Both are still and purposeful with Gosling rarely blinking throughout the entire film! His stillness is personified in his relationship with "Mai" (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) and whilst their dalliance is very real much of their time together has an ethereal, dreamlike quality to it. Is Julian day dreaming or fantasising about Mai, or is his fractured mind unravelling? There are numerous further supporting roles but the stand out performance comes from Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian's Mother "Crystal".
In a film dominated by male testosterone and stylised bloody revenge, it is Kristin Scott Thomas who produces a performance of sheer will and intensity as family Matriarch and uber dominant Crystal. Arriving in Bangkok to retrieve the body of her "first born son" the perma smoking head of the family exudes superiority over everyone and no-one dares challenge her authority. Highly sexual, there are incestuous undertones to her reunion with Julian but her dominance pours out in every scene, from her arrival at the hotel, to her reunion with her son and her enjoyment at a male body building show at a local club. But her utter dismissal of both Julian and Mai at an evening meal encapsulate her brilliantly and showcase a wonderful performance from Kristin Scott Thomas. Utterly dismissive of Mai "How many cocks can you entertain in that come dumpster of yours?" she turns her attention to her son, berating and embarrassing him by proclaiming "Billy was everything Julian wanted to be".
Violent, bloody, brutal and stylised within an inch of it's life. Yep, it's the latest from Nicolas Winding Refn!
"I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty"
Style over substance is an oft severe criticism in the career of enfant terrible' Director Nicolas Winding Refn but this often misjudges his traits and desires for his own distinctive cinematic stamp and film making style. They are all here in glorious stylistic abundance, with red the dominant colour (and in the opening frame of the film), long lingering shots of his main characters, a real duality to all but two of his characters (both of those remaining deliberately one dimensional and straight ahead for narrative purposes) and characters written by Nicolas Winding Refn to be edgy and constantly untrustworthy. Those tropes or motifs are all present here, as are his trademarks of beautiful slow motions, vibrant and stylish lighting (from Director of Photography Natasha Braier) and another beautifully haunting electronica musical soundtrack from regular collaborator Cliff Martinez who also scored his previous two films, Drive and Only God Forgives.
Also present here is another of Refn's trademarks but much less celebrated and often heavily criticised, of a brooding intensity and hyper sense of foreboding that often explodes in ultra stylised yet visceral blood soaked violence. There is far less here than perhaps his previous effort Only God Forgives but professional critics won't forgive what is present on screen and for two particular scenes (of which I will not provide spoilers), The Neon Demon was critically panned by UK reviewers and the film booed when presented at The Cannes Film Festival. The two scenes which shall not be named or spoiled by me are both horrifically visceral, stylised through his motifs of slow motion camera shots and stylish lighting but equally still visually disturbing, contentious subject matter and incredibly difficult to watch. Interestingly, of the two scenes, only one of which contains his trope of dark red blood preceded by ultra violence, however this bloody scene is distressing throughout its short screen time and the aftermath deliberately felt throughout the rest of this disturbing yet hyper stylistic depiction of youthful beauty and intense jealousy in modern day Los Angeles.
Described as a "psychological horror", The Neon Demon is based on a story by Director Refn with a screenplay co written with collaborators Mary Law and Polly Stenham. In essence, the story follows the exploits of 16 year old "Jesse" (Elle Fanning) who orphaned and alone follows her modelling dream to the City of Lights, Los Angeles, and after signing with Modelling Agency Owner "Roberta Hoffman" (Christina Hendricks in another cameo role in a Nicolas Winding Refn film) encounters a shady, duplicitous, exploitative and envious cast of characters, many of whom are vastly different from their initial first impressions and many who share one of the film's many taglines and apt quotes with "nobody likes the way they look". Envy and jealousy pervade the entire film with "Sarah" (Abbey Lee) and "Gigi" (Bella Heathcote) demonstrating this in spades with their constant back biting, dismissive looks and jealous comments aimed at the newbie Jesse. Their's is a cut throat world of international modelling and they instantly see a distinct competitor in the youthful and beautifully stunning Jesse. Make up artist "Ruby" (a brilliant performance from Jena Malone) takes the young Jesse under her more experienced wing but along with the majority of these duplicitous characters has more than a simple altruistic reason for doing so. Desmond Harrington plays spiky and insidious fashion photographer "Jack" with the final two notable parts portrayed by perhaps the only straight forward, one dimensional characters who have little to gain from duping or playing with Jesse emotionally, but for entirely differing reasons. "Dean" the wannabe boyfriend of young Jesse is portrayed well by Karl Glusman and is truly the only person within Jesse's sphere who has her interests genuinely at his heart, whereas Keanu Reeves minor cameo role as Motel Owner "Hank" whilst not sympathetic or duplicitous, is honestly awkward, horrible and utterly unlikeable. It is within this, quite literal, nest of vipers, that Jesse immediately finds herself as she is quickly acquainted with the horrid and unedifying world of modelling in Los Angeles.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) Recent roles in Maleficent, Trumbo, 20th Century Women and Live by Night have catapulted Elle Fanning into serious recognition for many substantial future cinematic roles. Here as a youthful Jesse, at only 16 but forced to lie as 19 by the modelling machine that quickly consumes her, she performs her headline role brilliantly. She is a youthful, engaging and naive 16 year old surrounded by more experienced peers, hangers on and shady characters all projecting their wishes of youth and beauty onto her. She is pertinently asked early in the film "What does it feel like to walk into a room in the dead of winter? And be the sun?" Pointedly, and of course surrounded by a cast of envious characters, annoyingly, she replies "Everything". This is indicative of Jesse's aspirations as well as her naive and youthful innocence and completely at odds with the world in which she finds herself. At 16/19 years of age she is at the ludicrous peak of what is deemed acceptable in the cut throat world of modelling, brought vividly to life by one of her modelling acquaintances with the cutting question of "Who wants sour milk when you can have fresh meat?". In a film of so many purposely distasteful and unlikeable characters, Jesse shines like a beacon of hope through her innocence and naive determination to make it in the world of modelling, with Elle Fanning's portrayal just about pitch perfect throughout.
A slight spoiler but it's worthy of note, in defence of the Director and/or his fellow writers if nothing else. Jesse's decline in the film from her youthful, naive beginnings isn't as a result of a stereotypical descent from the mountain top due to alcohol or drugs but from the very reasons she became entangled in the world of modelling in the first instance. Her youthful exuberance and naivety quickly begins to work against her, as does her search for fame, progress and notoriety and whilst other films would've clumsily entered into stereotypical behaviours of addictions as the route of her downfall, Director Refn cleverly veers from this path.
Whilst not as bloody or brutal as Only God Forgives or as caustically funny or intriguing as Bronson or indeed as epic and beautiful as Drive, The Neon Demon is far from the booed flop of the Cannes Film Festival or indeed the horrific work of a nihilist that many professional film reviewers would have you believe. Yes there are two particular scenes that are distasteful and horrifically difficult to watch but as a whole the current enfant terrible' of cinema has produced another stylistically pleasing and mostly substantive piece of film making, aided and abetted from two singular female performances of real note set against a backdrop of beautifully distinctive visuals and yet another haunting electronica musical score.