Tag Archives: Nicolas Winding Refn

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee,

PLOT: A 16-year old girl travels to Los Angeles to become a model; her rare beauty makes her an immediate hit, but not everyone in town wishes her success.

Still from The Neon Demon (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Since I’m incredibly jaded when it comes to cinematic strangeness, when I get the rare opportunity to watch a weird movie in a theater, I like to pay attention to the reactions of the other theatergoers to try to assess the film’s baseline level of audience alienation. At the well-attended late night screening where I saw The Neon Demon, at two separate points the young man sitting directly behind me let out a distressed “WTF are we watching?” My own viewing companion (a film fanatic with mainstream tastes) complained Demon was both “too arty” and “too trippy.” On the other hand, there were no confirmed walkouts—although one woman did step out briefly when a certain grossout scene commenced, only to return when it was over. The lack of mass departures was discouraging, but the audience’s stunned reactions were generally strong enough to convince me that Refn’s onto something genuinely weird here.

COMMENTS: Stylishly unreal and bluntly provocative, lit by neon and covered in glitter, The Neon Demon may be the most beautiful and least meaningful art film of 2016. It begins with radiant waif Jesse (Fanning) posing for necrophilia-themed glam shots, and progresses through an expressionist Illuminati pyramid catwalk triumph and gratuitous grossout scenes (which I won’t spoil, except to say that multiple taboos are tweaked, sometimes in the same scene) to a bloody climax. The film is washed in Natasha Braier’s unreal lighting schemes, a la Suspiria—or even more on point, a la a bigger-budgeted Beyond the Black Rainbow—and the characters are clothed in Erin Brenach’s bizarrely conceived metallic/pastel costumes, with the entirety choreographed to a chilly, abstract electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Sensually, Demon is a pulsating, glittering delight, although anyone looking for intellectual sustenance will find little nourishment here (the film’s unsubtle message is “L.A. feeds on the beautiful,” hardly a novel insight). The whole experience is like attending a rave held at Hollywood’s most fashionably nihilist discotheque.

The roles are underwritten—or, more charitably, archetypal. Fanning does well enough as the wunderkind of pulchritude, a luckless gal who knows she has one asset in life and is determined to use it. Jena Malone is more impressive as a make-up artist who takes it upon herself to play big sis to the industry comer, while Heathcote and Lee portray a pair of catty anorexic working models, on the wrong side of 21 and eaten up with envy at Jesse’s success. The marginal male characters are just as obvious—a couple of domineering, vaguely threatening fashion impresarios, and aspiring boyfriend and photographer Dean, who, upon learning Jesse is only 16, hesitates ever so slightly before leaning in for a good night kiss. Of the masculine predators, the standout is easily Keanu, playing against type as a low-rent sleazeball operating a motel catering to runaways. Given the character’s utter depravity, the role was brave and unexpected for a waning matinee idol. After 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and now this dark cameo, I will declare that Reeves’s penance for his masterpiece-wrecking Jonathan Harker is officially complete.

Fashion isn’t art, it’s design, so can—or should—a movie about the fashion scene be artful? Individual shots from The Neon Demon are pure genius—yet, there’s not much that ties the film together conceptually, other than its obvious cautions about the high-stakes world of professional superficiality. A fashion maven rightfully scoffs at the notion that Dean (who claims, without much visible evidence, that Jesse has unseen depths) would be interested in the model if she wasn’t singularly gorgeous. Just like it’s subjects, The Neon Demon is shallow and beautiful. And though beauty isn’t everything, it actually counts for a lot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

53. BRONSON (2008)

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“I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.”–Director Refn on Bronson

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: Tom Hardy

PLOT: Narrated from a theater inside his own mind by Michael Peterson (later to rechristen himself Charles Bronson, his “fighting name” ), the movie is an aggressively stylized account of the true story of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who spent 30 years of his 34 year sentence in solitary confinement for his violent behavior.  Peterson knocks over a post office with a sawed-off shotgun and receives a seven year penitentiary sentence; inside, he finds he has a natural affinity for institutional life as he nurtures a burgeoning passion for taking hostages and picking fights with prison guards.  Shuffled from prison to prison, and serving a brief stint in a hospital for the criminally insane, Peterson is furloughed, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and adopts the name Bronson, and lasts a few months in the outside world before finding himself reincarcerated, at home once more.

Still from Bronson (2008)


BACKGROUND:

  • The movie stays true to the spirit of the real life Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson, while omitting many facts and inventing others.  The real Charlie Bronson has won several awards in prison-sponsored contests for his artwork and poetry and has published several books, including a fitness guide and an autobiography titled “Loonyology.”  In one of his hostage-taking escapades, he demanded an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea as ransom.
  • Before incarceration Michael Peterson actually worked as a circus strongman, which may be where he developed his distinctive trademark handlebar mustache and shaved pate.
  • Danish director Refn was previously best known for the gritty, documentary style Pusher trilogy, a look at the criminal drug dealing subculture in Copenhagen.
  • Some of the paintings appearing in the film and in the animated sequences are actual drawings by the real life Bronson.  Examples of Bronson’s artwork can be found here.
  • Actor Tom Hardy put on about 40 pounds of muscle for the role.  Previously best known as “Handsome Bob” in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla, Hardy is poised to become a breakout star, slated to replace Mel Gibson in the new “Mad Max” series.
  • Cinematographer Larry Smith began his career with Stanley Kubrick, working as an electrician on Barry Lyndon and a gaffer on The Shining before graduating to  assistant cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.
  • At the film’s London premiere, a tape recording of Bronson’s voice was played, stating, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on.  As long as my mother enjoys the film, I’m happy… I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either, because every punch I’ve ever flung in my life I’ve taken 21 back.”  This incident caused the Prison Officers’ Association to complain, because it is illegal to record a prisoner in a British prison without authorization.  The Association also accused the film of “glorifying violence.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bronson turning himself and his art teacher into living paintings in the very strange finale.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hyperstylized to the point of surreality, Bronson is biopic as


Original trailer for Bronson

mythology, an appropriate tack when dealing with a self-deluded, self-promoting subject.  The portrait that emerges is not so much of a fascinating but essentially unknowable real-life sociopath as it is a portrait of Bronson’s pseudo-artistic attempt to create a public image as an antihero, with notes of humanizing sympathy but also with plenty of knowing irony added to deglamorize its subject.

COMMENTS:  Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson undercuts my theory of acting.  I Continue reading 53. BRONSON (2008)