The 1st full trailer for Refn's TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG has arrived! Rejoice!
Refn brings his wild sensibilities to a dark fantasy epic involving the possible course of a Viking trip to North America before anybody other than the Natives set foot on its ground.
Bronson. 2008. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Brock Norman Brock & Refn.
Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Juliet Oldfield, Jonathan Phillips, Mark Powley, Hugh Ross, Joe Tucker, Gordon Brown, & Charlie Whyman. Str8jacket Creations/Vertigo Films/Aramid Entertainment Fund.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Time and again I say it: Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the directors working today whose mix of influences bleed into his talent in the perfect shade, making him a passionate artist forging his own path while still showing love for those who came before him, and above everything an uncompromising auteur. Lots of so called fans only came on after Drive became a big, unexpected hit. It’s a great flick. Not his best, though, despite being so awesome. There are a bunch of other amazing pieces of cinema that came before it, such as the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder, Fear X, and certainly this whopper of arthouse film, Bronson.
What’s lovely about Refn is that, though his style is singular and always apparent each of his movies takes on a vastly different type of world and story. That makes his electronic-score driven, gorgeously framed, dark style almost perfectly suited for the story of the world’s most infamous prisoner, Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy) a.k.a Michael Gordon Peterson. This is a true story. Well, sort of. Refn is able to provide the surrealist atmosphere for the plot to play out in the right sense. We’re never quite sure if what’s occurring in front of our eyes is truthful, a part of Bronson’s built up and enhanced self image, or if Charlie’s actually full-on mad. The screenplay from Refn and Brock Norman Brock lets us escape into the mind of a man who defines ‘product of the system’ in a way that’s never before been allowed with other prison films. And for all Refn’s excellency as director, Bronson is so effective due to the tornado force performance out of Hardy. He is a revelation and one worthy of every bit of hype the media gives him. Hardy and Refn together with the foundation of a character like Bronson, an unbelievably real man, makes for one of my favourite films post-2000.
Something I love about this story is what Roger Ebert echoed in his review of the film. The fact Refn and Brock make no attempts to explain away the behaviour of Bronson is exactly what makes the movie enjoyable. At his core, Peterson – who took the name Charlie Bronson as a fighting name – is a horrid sort. You can’t always use that label I previously mentioned, product of the system, as a way to rationalise the actions of bad people. Sure, Peterson was likely changed into who he ultimately became because of his incarceration and the time he spent institutionalised. However, I truly feel that in his heart Peterson has the seed of evil. Maybe not full-on evil, but certainly of badness. He’s not a relentless murderer. Yet a dangerous individual no less. His incessant fighting and rage is a plague, on him, as well as more importantly on everyone around him. So I find there’s a fine line drawn between making an excuse for someone who’s a ward of the system, essentially, and someone who could very well just have on real conscience or concern for growing as a person, other than in the sense of physical growth in order to be the best fighter possible.
In turn, Hardy makes the central performance vibe well with the intentions of the overall story and its themes. He gets the character right in terms of the swagger, the mentality and the outright madness. He is physically intimidating, he’s also funny and charming in a brash way. There’s a ton of different feelings you get about Charlie throughout the runtime of the movie, and Hardy is always pushing you. There are moments you don’t think you’re meant to laugh, but you do. There are moments that you’re not sure if fear is the appropriate response; it is, very much. And most of that is Hardy bending the screenplay to his will. Making the character memorable and fierce. There’s not a single shot where Hardy isn’t making you think or compelling you further into the personality of Bronson. Whether that’s a good thing, you be the judge.
Another aspect that’s interesting to me is the idea of celebrity and persona. Peterson becoming the alter-ego of Charles Bronson is the first shift in his identity where we see that he’s to become a celebrity. Or more so that he’s to become famous, or infamous is the best way to describe it. The surrealism of the script, jumping from one mad scene to the next, is what brings everything out, as the larger than life persona is represented admirably via the stage play moments. As Bronson recounts to us his life he becomes the circus ring leader, the lead performer – at once he’s the star of the show, the next he’s a different character with lipstick and manicured nails and drawn on hair to boot.
These scenes allow us to look into the confused identity that is Bronson, the man formerly known as Michael Peterson. “You can‘t tie that up in a nice little pink bow,” an art instructor tells Charlie about the picture he’s drawing, a perfectly poignant commentary on the man himself: “Nah you can‘t pin me down, mate,” replies Bronson. Best of all, those stage play scenes give us a window into the soul of Charlie, as we fully understand how lonely the man is and what drives him: he needs, and wants, an audience. After so much time alone stuck in cells and having only time inside his own head, that stage is both an escape from this life, and it’s also a cry for help, the want for an audience. Maybe that’s all he ever needed; not incarceration, but rather attention, care, kindness. We’ll never know, though, and this is part of why I love the film. Refn gives us plenty upon which to ruminate. He never proposes any answers, nor does he make it seem like that’s his aim. His objective here is to fall into the headspace of the truly veritable headcase that is Charlie Bronson.
This one is at the top of my Refn list. I’m a fan of every last bit of his work. He is a very interesting director and writer. His style is tons of fun, it is vibrant and always compels you to keep you watching, if only to figure out what’s about to happen next, and how it’s going to be expressed. Bronson is one of his more surreal efforts, in line at times visually with Valhalla Rising in its strange beauty. Tom Hardy can get into the skin of any character. He relishes every moment as Bronson, putting his heart and soul and limbs into each scene. Not many actors are willing to get naked and pain themselves, have their ass greased with butter (and by another man), to fully commit themselves to the insanity of a role such as that of Charlie; Tom is one of those few actors that can go to the lengths required. There are many times you’ll wonder where exactly the plot is moving. Let’s just say it never goes far. But not every story has a plot that moves in the typical fashion from Point A to B to C through to a nicely wrapped finale. Bronson is a series of scenes that accurately depict the loneliness, brutality, and all around uncontrollable personality of a man you’d never in a million years believe to be real, if he weren’t so well known. Along the way you’ll laugh, you will cringe. All appropriate reactions. This is a character study which pulls you along on the tails of music (from the atypical Refn electronics to popular classical pieces) and violence featuring one of the greatest performances you’re likely to ever witness.
Bleeder. 1999. Directed & Written by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Kim Bodnia, Mads Mikkelsen, Rikke Louise Andersson, Liv Corfixen, Levino Jensen, & Zlatko Buric. Kamikaze.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.
People who frequent this site will now be sick of my love for Nicolas Winding Refn. He divides people. Nowadays, some of his supposed fans are really just fans of Drive. Others like his earlier work but find his latest stuff in the past 10 years a bit too much. Furthermore, there are others like myself who enjoy every last inch of film on which he’s left his mark. Not only that, I enjoy his writing alongside his choices and style as director. Not everything works every bit of the time. However, Refn always manages to intrigue me. He pulls at the seams of the brain and makes it unravel, no matter if we’re stuck in the gutters of Copenhagen, the cluttered video shops and bookstores, or whether he’s got you traipsing across the landscape of some foreign place on the way to who knows where – his mind is always working to try and fuck yours. In one way, or another.
Bleeder is in the earlier portion of his career, where the main focus of the stories he told were based in the streets of Copenhagen. First with Pusher, he explored a criminal, drug world. This film is set in a similarly lower class environment in semi-rundown flats and other locations, the characters each lower to middle class types. Above all else, Refn sticks with the gritty, in your face realism of his first feature. Here in his second feature there’s a closer, more personal look into the life of a family that’s falling apart, all due to the husband’s inability to express himself or seek out what he truly wants, instead opting to go along with the status quo – get married, have a kid – when it isn’t what he wants.
The results are tragic and violent.
And ultimately, blood begets more blood.
The biggest, most evident part of Bleeder is how Leo (Kim Bodnia) is so obviously jealous of the single life. More importantly, his problems with the movies, the difference between reality and fiction are what bother him most. See, Lenny (Mads Mikkelsen) is a cinephile, much like myself. He spends a good deal of his time immersed in the world of various directors, auteurs and blockbusters and everything in between. At the same time, that also paints Lenny’s view on life a little unrealistically.
Or does it?
Compared to Leo and his fucked up life, the life he fucked up all on his own, the way Lenny approaches life is quite normal. Also, he looks at what Leo has and wants that while Leo is busy shitting all over it. Lenny’s a more reserved type, likely hoping a movie romance is going to fall into his lap, as well as maybe he’s a bit too reserved, a little anti social. But Leo is stuck in a life he’s not so sure he wants to live. His wife Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson) is pregnant, he doesn’t truly want a kid, then of course he winds up beating the hell out of her. So when he rags on Lenny for watching too many films and when he rages against a movie because it’s unrealistic, what’s really going on inside is that Leo is jealous.
He wants a different life, but won’t get one. Can’t now. So instead he decides to take control, unlike Lenny who he sees as aloof in the obsessive world of cinephilia. He buys a gun, he acts like a movie tough guy but in real life. However, in real life there are consequences. In the movies we see gangsters beat up on their girlfriends and nothing ever seems to come of it. They get off with everything, free to do as they please, to whomever they please. When Leo takes it upon himself to make his life into a real live motion picture, he also must face the consequences. Even better, the climactic moments of this story are wild and almost outrageous. Yet still they’re all too real. So real in fact that it’s almost nauseating.
The gritty qualities of the film are paralleled in the ultimate nasty, defining moment that comes in the last twenty minutes. Added to that, Kim Bodnia – perhaps the world’s most underrated actor – gives us a stellar performance. There’s a scene where he comes to and find himself tied up, hanging from chains, and there’s this odd, moaning sound that emanates from him, louder and louder, longer and longer. It’s actually chilling. Even before that he does a fascinating job with a despicable character. You can see him cracking, gradually, then over the course of the film watch him drift into oblivion. There’s a good progression to the character and it’s only made better with Bodnia in the lead, doing a fine job like he did with Refn’s Pusher as Frank.
Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen is awesome as Lenny. He is one of those actors that has wide range. In some projects he plays creepy, scary characters. Here, he’s a timid and shy guy that has trouble reaching out to women, and instead of being creepy or inappropriate merely keeps to himself. So there’s a nice quietude in his character in juxtaposition with all the horrific realities of Leo’s situation. Watching Mikkelsen an Zlatko Buric together in the video shop is a treat, so different from their interactions in Pusher. They have good chemistry. But Mikkelsen really takes us into Lenny, and you can’t help rooting for him to finally push through to meet that girl he’s interested in.
Finally I cannot forget Levino Jensen playing the character of Louis, the violently racist brother to Louise. This guy is actually endearing in the early parts, even if you know he’s a bit of a hard ass. He just has this affectionate quality to him when with his sister particularly. Then there’s a switch, as Leo oversteps his boundaries and abuses Louise. Afterwards, we see Jensen break out in the character, making Louis into an intimidating person despite his stature. That’s the mark of a solid actor, when the physicality is second to the pure, intense emotion they can bring to a part. Jensen is such an actor, which I honestly didn’t expect. But he adds plenty to the film with his performance.
As opposed to other works from Nicolas Winding Refn, Bleeder is a simple piece of cinema. That’s not to say it’s dumbed down. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. It is raw and to the point, it is brutish, bloody nearing the end and always compelling. This is a close view of violent men; not in the movies, but in real life. Whereas Lenny ends the film embracing a corporeal romance, something palpable and not only the world he loves in the movies, Leo winds up falling into a real life event and story which mirrors the best, bloodiest pieces of cinema out there. It’s perhaps this final hideous act of violence involving Louis and Leo that forces Lenny towards finally stepping into the world, outside the camera’s frame, and finding a life that doesn’t only involve the fictional space of film.
This is a great movie that does not get enough credit. It’s honest and open, while also having an almost surreal aspect in its more intense moments. Refn will always divide people, but I wil always find him interesting, even if I come across something eventually that I don’t like. For now, it’s all good, baby!
Fear X. 2003. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Refn & Hubert Selby Jr.
Starring John Turturro, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Eric McIntyre, William Allen Young, Gene Davis, Mark Houghton, Jacquline Ramel, James Remar, Nadia Litz, Amanda Ooms, Liv Corfixen, & Frank Adamson. Moviehouse Entertainment/Det Danske Filminstitut/Fear X Ltd.
Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.
This is one hell of an interesting film, for a whole host of reasons. First of all, Nicolas Winding Refn is a director-writer whom I find incredible, one of the closest filmmakers currently making movies that has sensibilities of some of my favourite old school directors. Refn continually proves he’s got vision, willing each subsequent project to be weirder and wilder than the one it follows. Secondly, John Turturro is a talented character actor. He is often recognized for his talent, just never recognized enough. Far as I’m concerned he should be in many more films, as well as even better calibre films than some of the projects he’s been in. Because regardless of what the movie is, Turturro is sure to provide an odd thrill.
Fear X rots the gut of some viewers because it defies explanation. Moreover, Refn himself has all but thrust his middle finger at the audience; not in profanity but more as a challenge. He says “what the fuck is an ending” in response to those turned off by lack of resolution. I guess the same people worried about that have a ton of trouble with stuff from David Lynch, or someone even more mad like Andrzej Żuławski, both of whose films usually say ‘fuck meaning’ – not in that there is NO meaning, rather in the sense of being hard to pin down with a singular explanatory idea/sentence.
In the vein of Lynchian storytelling, Refn, along with all the dialogue written by Hubert Selby Jr (author of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), draws us into the fever dream of a man grieving terribly for his wife after her inexplicable murder. The story is labyrinthine and coils around you until there’s a feeling of tension that won’t let go, much like that which grips the protagonist. Never do we know for sure the final answer. We are left to hypothesize on our own, to cobble together the bits Refn and Selby offer.
What we make of this journey is ours.
And ours alone.
Psychological films can get boring if they’re not handled with some sort of technique or style which speaks to those elements. Refn is undoubtedly influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick. This shows often in many of his works post-Pusher era. It’s particularly prevalent here in the psychological aspect of the journey Harry (Turturro) takes to find out the truth behind what happened to his wife. Some of the symmetrical frames and zooms that Refn uses throughout the film are the child of Kubrick’s directorial technique. None of it is robbery. It is pure and plain homage to a master whom Refn so clearly idolizes. Also, the Lynchian influence is not only in the film’s plot. Often times the cinematography here reminds me of Blue Velvet in particular with its shadowy interiors, colourful yet dark and ominous, so rich and vibrant while simultaneously feeling entrenched in black, negative spaces. Cinematographer Larry Smith has gone on to work with Refn on a couple other pictures, this being only his second feature film credit; impressive to say the least, as the work here is impeccable from by eye. He and Refn cultivate an unsettling atmosphere that keeps you right in the paranoid mindset of Harry, at the center of a life marred by doubt and unresolved questions, never far from the bent reality of nightmares.
Add into the atmosphere a bit of Brian Eno, and things get all the more interesting. He works alongside Dean Landon and J. Peter Schwalm to create an ambient layer of sound that hovers around every last scene like a ghostly presence. The score is foreboding, it makes more unsure than we already are about what lies beyond the peripherals of Harry’s vision, both figuratively and literally. Most of all, the music and sound design alike is powerful in its quietude just like the central performance from Turturro.
Turturro is the reason Fear X is able to stay so emotionally credible. His performance as Harry is such a subtle one that you never find it hard to empathize with him. Watching his descent into further paranoia as the plot wears on becomes a revelation. Much like his character from Barton Fink, Harry is sort of dropped into an environment that’s totally foreign to him, where nothing makes sense only what he’s able to glean from his own thought process. In a way, the character is similar to the audience in that we’re left to our own devices, as Harry must piece together the faint bits of clues without any explanations or answers. Turturro’s abilities as a character actor are on display throughout our witnessing Harry nearly crumble to nothing in front of our eyes, slipping down a rabbit hole of paranoid fear.
I also can’t not mention James Remar. He does a fantastic job with his role. There are many places he turns up in film and television which surprise me, and this movie may take the cake. Regardless, he gives a top notch performance here as a cop with a guilty conscience, exacerbated by the arrival of Harry in his jurisdiction. From moment one, Remar fascinates with his portrayal of Peter and really makes his character honest, laying bare the remorse, or maybe lack thereof, in a killer.
Fear X is not on my top list of Best Nicolas Winding Refn. At the same time, it is still a remarkable work of cinema. Many pore this film over looking for exact clues, artefacts within the script and the dialogue and the particular events or down to the shots where they’ll say “Oh here it is; the answer” – except that’s not the point.
This film is about fear and paranoia. It is about the dangerous path we find ourselves on when the answers are not able to fit inside a tiny, pre-packaged box, when our idealism runs afoul in a world not built for the idealistic. So within the intentions of the film itself, I believe there was always meant to be an open end to the questions being confronted. I have my ideas about the concrete elements that might make up a nice, neat little package in which Fear X could slot itself. But for me, the grey area feeling of the movie is what appeals to me. The fear of the title, the paranoia of the protagonist, these are what drive me towards feeling Refn did something excellent here. No matter how I look at things, this is an underrated mystery-thriller with a massively engaging performance out of Turturro.
The second sequel to Refn's groundbreaking PUSHER is a bleak look at the end of the road for one Copenhagen druglord, as he juggles recovery, family, and business on a very special day for his daughter.
Refn's sequel to his 1st PUSHER film is another bleak trip to Copenhagen's underworld.
Refn's debut, PUSHER, is a brutal, bleak piece of cinema.