Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who has started making his name in America after much international success. He started off in his native Denmark with 1996's Pusher, a strong (if not talked about) influence on the famous Dogme 95 movement. He ended up making it a trilogy, all highly acclaimed. I've not seen any of the Pusher films, but I recently watched 3 of his other movies, and all were quite interesting and worth a look.
In 2008, Refn made a "biopic" of Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson), the man who has been called "the most violent prisoner in Britain" and has spent only 69 days free from prison since 1974, despite being proud to say he has never killed anyone. Tom Hardy (who many now know as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, or perhaps as "the British guy" from Inception) gives a performance of incredible power, humor, and unrestrained rage. It's the most animalistic performance I've seen from an actor, and with this character, might be the only way of making him watchable without turning the audience off.
Refn, thankfully, never tries to explain away Charlie's behavior, nor make any type of excuses for him. He simply shows Bronson, unjudgingly, unabashedly, unapologetically. Bronson narrates in what becomes a kind of vaudeville show about his life, from briefly seeing his childhood (which he said was pretty good, his parents were hard working folks doing their best), to becoming a petty criminal who likes to get oiled up and fight guards, teachers, other prisoners, basically anyone who's in front of him. Forcing him to be moved more than 100 times to different prisons. Hardy's pit bull without a leash performance is reason enough to see this movie, as it's extraordinary. Thankfully, Refn keeps us at 90 minutes, because I'm not sure I would want any more.
The next movie I watched was Valhalla Rising, from 2009. A Viking story set in the year 1000 AD, we follow One Eye (the great Mads Mikkelsen, who many remember as the blood crying villain in Casino Royale), a prisoner made to fight other prisoners until he breaks loose and kills his captors. Sparing a little boy who begins to follow him around, the mute One Eye makes his way across the harsh landscape until he joins up with some crusading Christian Vikings looking to sail to the holy land and take it back. What follows is a hellish journey full of symoblism, silence, and plenty of tremendous cinematography.
Refn's compositions are often bold, almost garish in color, which he attributes to being slightly color blind. If they aren't big loud colors, he reasons that he can't really see them very well, so that's how his movies look. I like it, in general, and it works for the symbolic nature of Valhalla Rising. What also works in our descent into this cursed acid trip of a journey is, again, the lead performance. Mikkelsen is one of the most respected actors in Europe, having won many acting awards (most recently a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival). His work here as One Eye is tremendous, making his character dangerous without ever uttering a word, or often even emoting at all. He's an enigma, a mystery, and fascinating every second of the way. The movie itself is also quite good, though just like Bronson, it's not for everyone.
The third and most recent movie in Refn's catalog that I watched was his most mainstream and successful movie, 2011's Drive. Ryan Gosling came aboard to star and was allowed to select a director he wanted to work with, and said Refn was his only choice. Drive is like a 70's character study movie, in the cool cold sheen of an 80's movie. Gosling stars as The Driver, stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. Peppered with terrifically cast supporting roles, Drive is a damn fine little modern crime movie.
The opening getaway, where The Driver sets up his rules (5 minutes, no more, then I'll drive you anywhere) and we see him elude the LAPD at every turn, is extraordinary and the highlight of the movie. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is good too, though nothing reaches the heights that that opening sequence does. Still, it's interesting to see Refn's take on a mainstream movie, and Drive is certainly different enough to set itself apart from the other crime, gangster, and driver movies out there. It'll be interesting to see what Refn and Gosling's next collaboration, the currently shooting Only God Forgives, delivers to us.