Nicholas Winding Refn has crafted somewhat of an unintentional trilogy of movies involving a character that transcends traditional movie structure and harkens back to mythological characters of old. One-Eye, The Driver, Chang, all serve in leads of movies that are essentially modern fairy tales. These stories are not told in our reality. They’re heightened by a constant use of metaphors in character action and scenery. These are fairy tales. Don’t mistake fairy tales for goofy children fodder; they’re twisted stories designed to explore the fabric of morality.
I mentioned in my review for Only God Forgives that great directors have their own cinematic language in which they communicate to the audience. (Example: If cinema is a language, TASM 2 is illiterate) Refn doesn’t just speak another language with his movies, he tosses in a few rough dialects for good measure.
Archetypes and Perfect Simplicity: There is nothing wrong with a movie using a simple or even non-existent narrative as long as there is a method to the madness. Actions must have consequences and characters must have purpose. In the hands of a standard Hollywood director, this trio of movies (Valhalla Rising, Drive, Only God Forgives) would be a small footnote in their respective release years. Refn’s confident direction raises a B movie premise of Drive and turns it into what I believe to be the best movie of 2011.
My first exposure to Refn was through Drive and I’ve yet to see a movie of his that I have wholeheartedly loved quite like this one. On paper, the story of Ryan Gosling’s Driver is stolen from the Transporter series of B action movies. The Statham-driven franchise is all about posturing as the coolest type of power fantasy with not much else (Though I do sort of like the first one…). Drive is actually about something more than cool posturing. On the surface, it’s an effortlessly cool movie with wicked performances (Who knew Albert Brooks could do that?). Beneath the hood of this vehicle there are automotive parts that explore the darkness inside Driver. Is he a vicious criminal or a real hero? Can someone change from their fundamental nature? The fable ‘The Scorpion and the Frog’ is the clear inspiration for the Driver’s motivation (He is literally wearing a scorpion on his back). By the end of his journey, Driver realizes what he’s finally become: a real human being, and a real hero (The song doesn’t hide this fact at all. But it works).
Similar shifts in character take place over Refn’s Fables Trilogy (I’ll just call it this from now on), but not always from the perspective of the mythological character. Driver became a hero and changed the course of a family’s life. Chang forgives Julian for his sins – at a price. One-Eye returns from whence he came (hell. It’s hell). There broader aspects to the characters that wouldn’t flow in standard movie fare, but because of the recurring simplistic and loose narratives, the fantasy aspects of the characters and their movies function without faulting their own logic. Chang can fight Julian in a boxing gym and not have a finger laid on him because in this world, he is God. One-Eye can lead a group of crusaders into hell because the movie implies it’s his birthplace. Driver can ride off like the Man with No Name because he’s more than just a man now. Traditional storytelling doesn’t matter here. It’s all about the symbolic gestures and parables woven into a grander purpose.
Silence is Golden: Refn’s movies can often go for entire scenes without dialogue between characters. As I mentioned in my review for Only God Forgives this allows Refn to direct the actors in such a manner that their facial expressions and physical movements speak volumes where dialogue would not. The emotions speak for the characters. The most primal emotions Refn chooses to show are rage and love.
A common criticism of Drive was the romance between Driver and Irene. Minutes go by as the two stare into on another’s eyes, hoping for the slightest hope of a future together. Why spend time listening to characters tell us how much they love each other when we can just see it for ourselves?
When One-Eye leads a group of crusaders into their own personal hell, a montage sequence shows how each soldier, one by one, succumbs to insanity through acts of sexual and psychological violence. It’s profoundly unsettling and not a single word is muttered throughout it.
Only God Forgives’s standout fight sequence between Chang and Julian reaches primal levels of carnage. By the end of it, Julian is almost unrecognizable behind layers of scarred tissue and broken bone. The fight bears more meaning than just handy camera work and gorgeous visuals (that’s there too) but the impact of the fight is felt significantly more through the silence. Every punch is seen and heard.
Screenshot Everything: The most distinguishable quality of any Refn film is his use of color and violence – often mixed together. Refn is colorblind and can only see highly saturated and contrasting colors. While many would see this as a disadvantage, it clearly isn’t. The drab gray hues of Valhalla Rising is met with the occasional outburst of bright red and orange. The cityscape of Los Angeles in Drive has never looked better with the radiant atmosphere. Bangkok felt like its own underworld in Only God Forgives. Refn’s visuals tell just as much of a story as dialogue. It’s like a demented popup book.
What would a Refn film be without violence? We’ll probably never know. The violence is quick and brutal. There is no glorification of blood smears or disembowelment. It’s messy business. The quick flashes of violence aren’t too different from iterations of classic fairy tales (It’s been a while so correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t someone chop off their toes and/or ankle to force the glass slipper to fit in the original Cinderella story?). The gore never lingers but it’s prevalent enough to cause even the most seasoned gore fiends minor discomfort. Violence is never glorified but it is fetishized. No necessarily in a sexualized manner, but in a way that doesn’t shy away from the truth about violence in these films. It’s glamorized. At least one director understands how to use violence effectively.
Real Human Being, Real Hero: Nicholas Winding Refn isn’t a one-trick pony. The man knows how to incorporate just enough elements for plot and character to support a barebones story structure. His movie may have minor similarities in terms of quiet, stoic characters or the little connection to reality. It’s the approach and presentation that differs each time.
Will Refn add another entry into this series of fairy tale inspired movies? I’m certain he will. While it’s not an official anthology trilogy like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, Refn has a deep abiding love for the perversely violent and heightened reality. And why shouldn’t he? Our world is boring. As long as he keeps playing in his own fucked up sandbox, I’ll be willing to purchase a ticket.