Film & TV

A Guide to Nicolas Winding Refn

To celebrate the arrival of ‘Drive’ in cinemas, Impact brings you a rundown of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s career, including reviews of all of his films and some bits of biography to keep things interesting. Enjoy!

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn moved to New York at a young age. Briefly moving back to Denmark to finish his secondary school education, Refn then studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – his tenure was unfortunately cut short by an incident involving a desk, a wall, and subsequent expulsion. He once again returned to his homeland where he was accepted into the Danish Film School. However, true to form Refn dropped out before term had even begun.

Despite these apparent setbacks, it took Refn very little time to get noticed. A short film he had written, directed and starred in was aired on a small-time television station – this broadcast was spotted by film producers, they offered him a reported 3.2million Kroners to turn that seemingly innocuous script into a full feature. Pusher was born.

Pusher (1996) (Danish with English subs)

Review: The fast-paced and gritty tale of middleman drug-dealer Frankie marked a superb debut for Nicolas Winding Refn. With a relentless tempo and quality performances across the board, Pusher introduced Refn as a director with the potential to create both great characters and highly enjoyable narratives to showcase them in. Where the film shines is its ability to create empathy with dark, even morally reprehensible people. From protagonist Frankie – who continually digs a deeper and deeper hole for himself – to the ultra scary yet oddly charming Milo, the film creates a fabric of interesting and believable personalities.

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After Pusher, Refn had achieved cult fame in his homeland as well as international acclaim. Follow up film Bleeder, once again starring Mads Mikkelsen and Kim Bodnia, pushed his directing and writing talents even further towards cutting edge.

Bleeder (1999) (Danish with English subs)

Review: A gripping social drama that descends into a chaotic and violent conclusion, Nicolas Winding Refn again shows his proficiency for creating great characters. Mads Mikkelsen as video shop worker Lenny is the highlight – he’s socially awkward, a recluse wrapped a little too deeply in the world of films. However, he is also extremely likeable, a quality that Refn seems able to inject into even the oddest of characters. Frank Bodnia, previously of Pusher, plays Leo – a to-be father who finds himself going through a crushing mid-life crisis. Judging by this film and the original Pusher, Refn may have some sort of vendetta against Bodnia – his parts seem to be one unfortunate event after another, relentlessly spiralling towards an inevitably depressing ending. And trust me, the ending of Bleeder is as starkly bleak as they come. Regardless, Refn’s second feature is a cleverly constructed drama, showcasing some of the best of his talents.

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After the success of Bleeder, which was selected for the 1999 Venice International Film Festival, Nicolas Winding Refn made his first forray into English-language cinema with Fear X, starring John Turturro.

Fear X (2003)

Review: Refn’s first filmmaking venture outside of his native Denmark, Fear X, will be remembered as a disaster. With a production budget of $6 million – though it’s distinctly unclear where they spent that money – the film barely recouped any of its cost, and it’s easy to see why. A mind-bending story of loss and obsession, Fear X has one of the least conclusive second halves ever seen on screen. However, the film does contain some interesting ideas and an intense, brooding first chapter. The problem is, all its qualities will only be appreciated by an art-house audience, and with its inflated production budget, Fear X needed to be more accessible. Not as awful as you might think, but this one can be considered a blip.

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While Fear X was praised on the festival circuit, its financial failures were far more apparent. Refn’s production company, Jang Go Star, were forced into bankruptcy, and the Danish director was landed with a debt of $1 million. While he had never planned to make a sequel to his extremely successful debut Pusher, he was left with little choice in the matter when faced with the difficulties presented to him by Fear X. Thus, Pusher II was born.

Pusher II (2004) (Danish with English subs)

Review: Made so that Refn could take himself out of bankruptcy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pusher II was a commercial cop-out that did a disservice to the original. Thankfully, you’d be oh-so-wrong. Pusher II puts the character of Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) in the driving-seat this time around and his likeable nature, combined with an engrossing narrative, means this sequel matches and even eclipses the original. With his bad-boy image and drug-fuelled, erratic shenanigans conflicting with his instinctive desire to look after those around him who he cares about (of which there are few), Tonny spends the film torn between two mind-sets. His father berates him for being a lowlife when in fact he is merely a criminal himself – in one of the film’s best scenes their relationship reaches boiling point; a moment of incredible tension and unpredictability. Pusher II injects an amount of empathy into the framework of its predecessor, losing none of Pusher’s intensity or drama. Despite being made in less than ideal circumstances, this is a fantastic sequel.

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Merely a year later, Refn wrote, produced and directed Pusher III to complete the much-praised trilogy.

Pusher III (2005) (Danish with English subs)

Review: The Pusher trilogy’s third instalment puts the character of Milo (Zlarko Buric) into the lead role, having previously played a scary-yet-charismatic gangster boss in Pusher, reprising the role in Pusher II in a smaller capacity.  Pusher III lacks the intensity and pace of the first and doesn’t quite reach the emotional peaks of the second, but its balancing of the previous qualities means it provides a satisfying finale to the series. It may not be quite as good as either of the other two, but Milo’s relationship with his spoiled daughter is beautifully constructed, once again showcasing Refn’s brilliant capacity to create characters.

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After rounding off the successful Pusher trilogy, Refn again decided to venture into English-language cinema. However, this time he opted to imprint his style onto a more mainstream script. Bronson told the story of notorious British prison criminal Charles Bronson and starred the clearly talented Tom Hardy. After Sundance picked up the film for the 2009 festival, the hype began to build rapidly. On the back of this, numerous major film festivals also picked up the film, and it went on to huge critical acclaim and subsequently very strong box office figures. Bronson made Refn a celebrated director, with many commentators, particularly in Britain, branding him as the next great European auteur.

Bronson (2008)

Review: Refn ventured back to English-language filmmaking five years after the ill-fated Fear X with Bronson, the biopic of notoriously violent criminal Charles Bronson (technically an alter ego), who, after initially being given a seven-year sentence, ended up spending three decades in solitary confinement. While Refn’s direction is superb, maintaining a high-tempo intensity for the full 90 minutes, the limelight is stolen by the brilliant Tom Hardy. Hardy, now very much a big-time Hollywood actor after roles in Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, is superlative as the terrifying, sometimes demonic, Bronson. As already mentioned several times in this article, Refn has a flair for characters, and, about halfway through Bronson, it becomes apparent that Charles is not just an insane man with a lustful taste for violence – he’s a layered, complexly twisted ball of craziness. Bronson is hugely entertaining, particularly if you’re not adverse to a bit of violence – Refn’s first successful venture into the mainstream.

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In classic Refn style, rather than following up the success of Bronson with another prolific hit, he opted back into the art-house with Valhalla Rising. The film received some interesting write-ups, but failed to get even remotely close to the buzz of Bronson.

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Review: Largely viewed as a step backwards for Refn, Valhalla Rising was a bold move for the still unproven director. A comprehensively unconventional film from start to finish, Valhalla Rising dispenses with mainstream Hollywood mechanisms such as a narrative and a conclusion. This unfortunately means that the film is extremely difficult to swallow for a regular audience, but those willing to put a bit of effort into viewing it may find some pleasure. Mads Mikkelsen, previously of Pusher, Bleeder, Pusher II and now of Casino Royale, plays ‘One Eye’, an anti-hero apparently dragged up from the depths of hell. The story is complex and ambiguous, never feeling remotely close to earth. Worth a watch for fans of Refn.

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And now, on the day of its release, we arrive at Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest feature, Drive. Having already gathered massive hype, and some blistering reviews, Drive is sure to put Refn right back into the spotlight, and to even further the buzz around flavour-of-the-year and internet sensation (“Hey Girl”), Ryan Gosling.

Drive (2011)

Review: A highly stylish, pulsating film filled with cool car-chases and characteristically stark violence. Where Drive falls down is its one-dimensional, flat characters, though this flaw can be attributed to the pulp-y source material, rather than Refn’s direction. Check out my full review by clicking here.

That about covers it. I’ll leave you with a picture that fans of both Refn and Gosling can enjoy:

Thanks for reading!

Tom Grater

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Tom is a budding film reviewer, hell bent on providing informed opinions on the latest movie releases to those who need them, whether they like it or not.

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