(On Cable TV, December 2016) Had The Neon Demon been my first Nicolas Winding Refn film, I would have been furious at the downbeat fuzzy-plot nature of the movie. (Or maybe not—over the past few years, I’ve grown remarkably tolerant of movies that don’t put plot first.) But after Drive and most specifically Only God Forgives, I think I’ve learned to put Refn in a box alongside David Lynch: Visually spectacular movies with interesting set pieces but not necessarily a plot worth caring about. Expectation thus tempered, I was able to tolerate much of The Neon Demon without too much trouble … although, if scratched, I will admit that there’s a frustrating quality to the way The Neon Demon gets so close to having an intelligible story (fantastic or allegoric?), only to throw its chance away in a fit of artiness. In five-minute segments, though, the film is tolerable as it tracks the story of a new girl trying to make it in Hollywood. A fable about the exploitation of bodies in image-obsessed Los Angeles, The Neon Demon doesn’t try to stake out new ideas, but it does feature stylist cinematography, grotesque jumps into horror and an overall atmosphere of beautiful dread. Ella Fanning is OK as the deer-in-a-headlight protagonist, but Jenna Malone steals her scenes as a makeup-artist-by-day, lesbian-necrophiliac-vampire-by-night. (Or is she?) Keanu Reeves memorably shows up as a menacing presence. Still, it’s Refn’s work as a visual stylist that remains most notable here and is most likely to remain in mind even as the insubstantial story wafts away unwanted. The Neon Demon is not for everyone (Even after the acclaimed Drive, Refn seems resolutely uninterested in mainstream appeal), but at least I’ll concede that it felt slightly less irrelevant as Only God Forgives.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I wasn’t a big fan of Drive, so the idea of a reunion between star Ryan Gosling and writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t the draw that it was for other reviewers. Much to my dismay, it turns out the Only God Forgives (great title, right?) takes the worst aspects of Drive and magnifies them: The plotlessness, the tepid tempo, the garish color scheme, the brutal gore, the expressionless characters… it just goes on and on without much of a point, even though Vithaya Pansringarm is a force of nature as the vengeful policeman righting the wrongs made by Gosling’s family. It’s an unpleasant film in tone, approach and material, made worse by a lack of point and the bare skeleton of a plot stretched over 90 minutes. While the visual polish of the film is undeniable, the directorial flourishes of Only God Forgives can’t save it from pointlessness.
(In theaters, September 2011) Every so often, genre thriller fans are asked to confront moody art-house versions of familiar crime stories. Here we have a stunt driver / mechanic moonlighting as a getaway driver. He meets a single mother and her son; gets embroiled in a heist when her husband gets out of prison; is forced to defend himself once the heist turns bad and he ends up with a lot of money that other people have acquired in ways that would get everyone killed. Having read (and re-read) James Sallis’ thin novel on which the film is based, I can say that the adaptation is both loose and faithful: The plot is there, the motivations are entirely different but the mood is just as laconic and borderline pretentious. There are fewer details in the film about the protagonist’s life as a stuntman, but the details surrounding the main plot are far better developed (in particular “Irene”, much more fully rounded from the novel’s “Irena”). Still, the film itself feels stuck in-between genre conventions and dramatic pretention: The languid pacing alone is a tough sell to thriller audiences: Drive often feels like lengthy silences loosely connected together and the editing seems happy to linger on characters as they stare wordlessly into space to the sound of eighties-inspired music. Ryan Gosling’s nameless character is either a straightforward revenge-driven hero, or an enigma without dialogue; I had certainly imagined a scrappier protagonist from the novel. Meanwhile, art-house audiences may not feel entirely with the Grand Theft Auto-inspired subject matter, or with the unnecessary flashes of extreme gore. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is far more interested in dramatic beats than action sequences, which gives a particular off-beat flavour to the film’s more intense moments: they likely won’t satisfy action junkies, but they do bring something unusual to the table in terms of visual presentation. (The opening pre-credit sequence is remarkable.) Los Angeles itself gets to shine either through glorious night-time helicopter shots, or through the presentation of seedy run-down apartments in which the characters live. This kind of in-between location comes to define the rest of the picture as well, and if there’s enough interesting material in Drive to warrant a look for those who enjoy style clashes, the film itself may be a bit too self-involved to be fully successful. Cut fifteen minutes of the film, and we’ll see again.