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A Guide to Understanding—and Maybe Loving—Nicolas Winding Refn

Hollywood’s resident purveyor of beautiful trash returns on Friday with ‘Too Old to Die Young,’ a TV show he’s called a “13-hour movie.” Before its release, let’s get to know him a little better.

Ringer illustration

Everyone has a few guilty pleasures. Crocs are abhorrently designed, but maybe they’re low-key comfortable? Maybe frozen yogurt isn’t just a marginally healthier substitute for ice cream, but a superior dessert option? Maybe sporks are versatile, handy little utensils? Unlike Fleabag’s Hot Priest, you don’t have to confess any of your personal vices to me; in fact, I’m the one who needs to repent for my sins. Because I unabashedly love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn.

“Oh God,” you probably just groaned to yourself, if the name rings a bell—and, honestly, that’s warranted. If Refn’s name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the director of Drive, the Ryan Gosling vehicle that was hailed by several critics as one of the best films of 2011, and which turned a white scorpion jacket into an iconic piece of fashion. Drive was, at the time, a crowd-pleasing arthouse sensation that helped catapult its lead actor into A-list stardom. It also put the enigmatic Danish director in the spotlight and positioned him as one of Hollywood’s next great auteurs, one who could use his expanding platform to pilfer the deep pockets of major studios and pursue larger projects (think Ryan Coogler going from Fruitvale Station to Creed and Black Panther, or Colin Trevorrow from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World).

Instead, Refn’s post-Drive career has been defined by total self-indulgence, raucous boos at Cannes, bizarre interviews, and a streaming service no one has ever heard of. After merely flirting with mainstream success with Drive, Refn has seemingly actively encouraged people to dislike him. But Refn’s critics may largely misunderstand his charms and feel betrayed that he took a different route, even though doing so is totally on-brand. His movies are rooted in notions of fatalism and cynicism, accompanied by alluring imagery and intense bouts of violence. To fully appreciate Refn, you must accept him for what he is and nothing else: an auteur of beautiful, violent trash.

On the occasion of the filmmaker’s first television series, Too Old to Die Young, which arrives on Amazon Prime this Friday, here’s a helpful guide to Refn’s films, idiosyncrasies, and everything else about him worth knowing. If Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t up your alley, again, that’s totally fine—for reasons that will become quite clear, I know I’m the one who should be embarrassed.

The Movies

“Emotionally, our artistic expression consists of sex or violence. It all boils down to those two pure emotions that we have,” Refn told RogerEbert.com in an interview in 2013. Consider it his version of a mission statement. “There is a sexuality to violence that I find very intoxicating. But I think that that’s what turns me on.” At least he’s true to his word.

Brutal flourishes of violence, often interspersed with surreal, colorful palettes—Refn attributes the intense contrast of his movies to his color blindness; he can’t see midtones—are a through line in all of his films, beginning with 1996’s Pusher, the first installment of an eventual trilogy intended to explore the seedy criminal underbelly of Copenhagen. (Refn also loves criminal underworlds and the machinations that drive people to their worst impulses.) While they didn’t make waves beyond generating buzz on the festival circuit, Pusher and its sequels ultimately paved the way for Refn’s transition to English-language films.

Though his first English-language effort, 2003’s John Turturro–starring Fear X, was a financial (and critical) failure that put Refn in considerable debt, 2008’s Bronson was a promising statement film. Starring Tom Hardy as the notorious British prisoner who spent decades in and out of penitentiaries, Bronson doesn’t contend to explain why its subject can’t stop brawling and taking people as hostages. Instead, Bronson is art imitating life: Charles Bronson is the sociopathic creator of his own anarchistic world, and Refn invites us into his orbit to embrace the chaos. Bronson feels like a film student taking too much Adderall and watching A Clockwork Orange, in the best way possible.

As the singular contender for his most accessible film, 2011’s Drive—which made $76 million off a $15 million production budget—is an outlier in Refn’s filmography, not only because of its mainstream appeal. Unlike his other directorial efforts, Refn wasn’t responsible for writing the screenplay (though he did contribute to script changes during production with screenwriter Hossein Amini). The film does, however, have clear traces of Refn’s oeuvre, like when the Driver (Gosling) shares a tender, slo-mo kiss with Irene (Carey Mulligan) in an elevator before pulverizing an assailant’s skull in with his foot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drive’s graphic violence was the film’s largest point of contention for audiences.

But because Drive was such a sensation, there was tangible hype around the director’s next project, 2013’s Only God Forgives, which was certainly elevated by the fact that Gosling returned in the starring role. Perhaps because of those outsized expectations, and a moviegoing public unfamiliar with Refn’s broader work, things went downhill fast. Only God Forgives—set in the criminal underworld (shocker!) of Bangkok, Thailand—is a moody, exceedingly dark movie that opens with an underage girl being assaulted and killed. And it only gets worse from there. In lieu of playing a subdued, violent antihero, Gosling’s character Julian is an unequivocally bad dude, and he’s practically mute: Over the course of the entire movie, Gosling says just 17 lines of dialogue.

Only God Forgives builds up to a confrontation between Julian and a Thai police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm), whom Julian challenges to a fight. In what retrospectively feels like a massive troll from Refn, the policeman—who has a fondness for karaoke and jamming hair pins into eyeballs as an interrogation tactic—beats the ever-living crap out of Julian. (It doesn’t take a generous reading of the film to understand the lieutenant is meant to represent God, someone you probably shouldn’t square up against.) It’s gruesome and, unsurprisingly, much more difficult to digest than Drive. So while it didn’t result in a Drive-like hit, Only God Forgives represented a hyperviolent tone poem more in line with everything else Refn has ever done. Accepted on those terms, it’s among his finest work.

Only God Forgives was met with boos at Cannes and generally disliked by audiences, and Refn obliterated his post-Drive goodwill about as quickly as he earned it. But that suited him just fine: Expectations were appropriately tempered for his next feature film, 2016’s The Neon Demon. Set in Los Angeles and focusing on the fashion industry, the movie centers on Elle Fanning’s Jesse, an aspiring model whose beauty ensnares her with people who hope to consume it. In a 2016 New York Times interview, Refn framed The Neon Demon as a twisted take on A Star Is Born, which in retrospect, having seen both The Neon Demon and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, is quite the understatement. In the end, the film has a very literal, borderline ridiculous take on consumer culture.

It also features Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel owner, an actual cougar, and a hypnotic club sequence that’s among Refn’s most visually arresting scenes. The Neon Demon isn’t perfect—it was also booed heavily at Cannes, and reportedly caused two fights to break out—but it does feel like the perfect match between art and artist. Refn’s so enthralled with crafting beautiful, violent images that his films are often devoid of larger ideas. At least with The Neon Demon he crafted something as artificial and beautiful as the subject matter.

The Almost-Blockbusters

Most directors would’ve used a hit like Drive to launch their careers with major studios. Refn’s decision to eschew that route might seem like self-sabotage—he’s fought debt for parts of his career, and Drive is still his only film that turned a significant profit—but he did flirt with the idea of helming a blockbuster. Refn was tapped to direct a Logan’s Run remake, but Gosling exited the project and production was put on hold; Refn was also in consideration to direct the James Bond movie Spectre but didn’t think he could handle the constraints of the franchise; he almost directed The Equalizer, but in the end, producer Todd Black went with Antoine Fuqua after realizing that Refn had a “very different” vision for the film.

Refn probably won’t be on a major studio’s shortlist anytime soon, especially not after Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon doubled down on his violent and provocative tendencies. “I just know this way I can do whatever I want, and that outweighs any money anyone can give me,” he told The Telegraph, on avoiding the chance to direct Spectre. It’s a mutual separation: Refn doesn’t want to compromise his vision to fit the needs of a major studio, and they probably don’t want a movie where Christina Hendricks’s head explodes like a watermelon.

But maybe this is for the best. Consider what happened to David Lynch, one of the auteurs Refn is most frequently compared to: After garnering major buzz off of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Lynch helmed 1984’s expensive Dune adaptation, proving what happens when a weird, headstrong director teams up with a reticent, limiting studio. Lynch’s visual mastery was apparent but couldn’t make coherent what was already dense and complicated source material, and Dune was a critical and commercial failure. Since then, Lynch has avoided the conventions of mainstream Hollywood to do his own thing, making classics like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive. While Refn hasn’t totally thrown away the idea of working on a major studio film, it’s probably better for the filmmaker who has sincerely referred to himself as a “pornographer” to stick with the indie scene.

The Streaming Service

Not satisfied with solely releasing his own provocative films, Refn unveiled his own streaming service, byNWR, in 2018. Naturally, even the rollout for this project was mired in controversy: In an essay for The Guardian highlighting his inspiration behind creating the service, he called Donald Trump’s presidency “terrifying,” but “also thrilling.” He then wrote about how it’s important to push people out of their comfort zones and that “mental pain can be a way to stimulate and reset the brain,” before pivoting to the opportunity presented by his service to watch weird shit.

byNWR is probably the most niche streaming service on the planet; it makes the fringes of the Criterion Collection seem mainstream. Here’s how it works: byNWR releases a few new films for each “volume,” and if you sign up for the service—which is free—you get access to the movies, as well as accompanying essays from guest editors. The first batch of the 2018 release were grindhouse flicks from the ’60s and ’70s, including The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, the sole directorial effort from the late character actor Bert Williams. (The streamer is currently on its fifth volume, which is called “Monstrous Extravagances.”)

Refn prides himself on being a collector and preservationist for otherwise lost films, telling The New York Times last year that he’s less concerned with monetizing his streamer than giving offshoot projects a platform they otherwise would’ve never had. “We’re living in a world where entertainment is obviously becoming free,” he explained. “A lot of the films [had] maybe just two prints existing—once they were gone, there would be nothing. All the hard work in making a film and then they would be lost, which would be really sad.” Refn’s streamer is admirable in that it’s satisfying a very small audience while preserving cinema that could be lost permanently. Netflix’s library leans heavy on recent films, while my dude’s service is here to be, quote, “an unadulterated cultural expressway of the arts.”

The Miscellany

In case it wasn’t already clear: Refn is a strange dude. He told The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey that the wealth of entertainment available on digital platforms is like “an endless void of noise, filled with stars. You can just search the universe forever.” He considers nostalgia “artistic suicide.” He rebelled against his parents because they didn’t like violent content; for some reason, he also mentioned they hate Ronald Reagan. Even though he is making a television show, he has declared that “television is dead.” (Per auteur guidelines, he considers Too Old to Die Young a 13-hour movie.)

This is how he poses at his red carpet premieres:

WireImage

Other times, he throws up both fists, like an old-timey boxer.

Outside of his feature films, Refn has also worked with brands for television commercials, including Lincoln. That’s right: Those rambling Matthew McConaughey Lincoln ads that play out like you’ve just ingested a gallon of LSD are courtesy of this guy. Give “Bull” the Palme d’Or.

Every headline Refn manufactures seems like it’s pulled out of a random content generator—did you know he’s also going to be a character in Hideo Kojima’s new video game Death Stranding, along with Guillermo del Toro? No, seriously.

Refn and his films are a difficult space to navigate—the line between crafting gorgeous imagery, intense violence, and pointless provocation is precipitously thin. He crafts viscerally uncomfortable scenes that are made all the more disconcerting because he’s admitted that the work “arouses” him. Only Refn himself will know how much of this behavior is performative and how much he’s just letting his freak flag fly.

Refn is, without question, an acquired taste (and, to an extent, an embarrassing one to have). But the auteur hasn’t ever made compromises for the sake of going mainstream, and he continues to attract A-listers to his projects—Miles Teller is the star of Too Old to Die Young—and major platforms to house his work. That’s admirable in and of itself. He may never live up to the hype that Drive elicited in 2011, but with Too Old to Die Young becoming his third project in a row to divide Cannes attendees, it certainly feels like Refn is operating at the height of his controversial powers.