The films of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn are about as subtle as a boot to the face. He's made a name for himself by combining heavy synth scores, stylized slow motion, disaffectedly masculine antiheros, and images of extreme violence. In his latest opus, "Drive" (2011), Refn perfects his style.
His first effort, the "Pusher" trilogy (1999, 2004 and 2005), depicts the heroine drug trade in his native Copenhagen with a macabre realism, and the series has become a cult classic in Denmark.
Refn's next movie, "Bronson" (2008), an introspective tour-de-force about Britain's most notorious and violent inmate, truly established him as a new power in the independent film scene. The film invites the viewer into the imagination of a psychopath with such enthusiasm that it becomes difficult not to empathize. Refn's work can be compared to "A Clockwork Orange" (1971, Stanley Kubrick), Takashi Miike and Quentin Tarantino, based on the searing headline performance from Tom Hardy and the film's brutal depictions of hand-to-hand combat. But with its notoriety, "Bronson" also brought on criticism of the seemingly random scene order and emotionally hollow ending.
After that, Refn directed "Valhalla Rising" (2009), a beautifully grim but painfully slow experimental project about a lost Viking crusade. Fellow Dane Mads Mikkelsen stars as One Eye, a lone mute warrior with a supernatural ability to kill. The film entertains questions of faith, kinship and sacrifice like a blood-soaked Ingmar Bergman picture, but, is hindered by the glacial pace of the narrative.
Last week's release of "Drive," Refn's take on the American car chase movie marks a great stride in his growth as a director. Based on the book by James Sallis, "Drive" follows the nameless and background-less Driver, played by Ryan Gosling. A mechanic and stunt driver by day and heist wheelman by night, Driver is a loner content to spend his nights cruising the streets of Los Angeles until he finds affection in Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother living two apartments down from him. And soon after their encounter, Driver's well-intentioned actions cause his entire world to collapse into a Mafioso bloodbath.
Like the tight-lipped tough guys of "Dirty Harry" (1971, Don Siegel) and "Bullitt" (1968, Peter Yates) Driver seldom speaks, letting his actions do most of the talking. But unlike the one-dimensional stereotypes of that era, Refn and Gosling also manage to evoke a character that's vulnerable, nave and at times delusional in his quest to set the world right.
From the pink script titles, to the hauntingly beautiful synth score by Cliff Martinez, to the golden scorpion on the back of Driver's jacket, the film drips with 1980s cool. But Refn still avoids the bloated set pieces of his previous work. "Drive" runs lean.
The film is simply trimmed of all unnecessary dialogue, scenes and characters. It exists in a plane of hyper-reality, where every frame is overtly stylized but rarely feels affected or ingenuous.
As a director of action, Refn shines. Action films of the last 10 years have largely ascribed to the Bourne school of "chaos cinema," where the audience is bombarded with many quick close-ups and shaky camera movement designed to disorient and thrill the viewer.
This style is effective enough at expressing the intensity of a scene, but does a very poor job describing what happens. Refn's camera, in "Drive", however, lingers on the action afar.
From the opening car chase to the closing credits, one is completely engrossed in the action but remains spatially oriented.
I could write a book, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone in the future does, about the depth of this ostensibly shallow movie. I also wouldn't be surprised if "Drive" soon attains the cult status of "Fight Club" and "Pulp Fiction." With "Drive," Refn has truly proven his potential as a masterful director, and I'm very excited to see what he does next. So keep an eye on him, just don't ask me how to pronounce his last name.
"Drive" is currently playing at the Regal Cinemas Brunswick 10 on 19 Gurnet Rd.