Style Over Substance: In Defense of Nicholas Winding Refn

Most people love Drive (2011). It seemed to be the one movie where Nicholas Winding Refn’s choices as a director seemed to click with people. Refn’s two follow-up films, Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016) on the other hand, have been met with a much more mixed reception. Refn’s directing style is heavily visual while dialogue is delivered in a much more dry or awkward manner, creating a beautifully deformed version of Bangkok and Los Angeles where these films exist in. Refn is one of my favorite directors currently working because of his unique approach to film-making compared to other artists of this decade. His use of sound and color makes the cinematography of his films look beautiful but they are also symbolic and not just merely eye candy.

When Only God Forgives was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, it was booed by the audience. When the film was actually released theatrically, it created some of the most strongly mixed reception from both sides in recent memory. Some hailed it as masterpiece, while others called it one of the worst films they had ever seen. Many dismissed the film as too abstract and too heavily stylized. But under the surface, the story Only God Forgives tells us is an allegorical revenge film where the vibrant color and cinematography help tell the story as well as enhance the experience. The dislike of this film can still be understood as the acting could turn people off from it, but it is a movie that should be viewed again before dismissing entirely.

Refn’s The Neon Demon, a satire of the fashion industry, is one of my favorite films to have been released in recent memory. The way that Cliff Martinez’s eerie soundtrack fits the film’s display of the fashion industry, the perfect lighting and cinematography, and on top of that, Elle Fanning’s mesmerizing performance as Jesse, the aspiring young model. While not as polarized in reception as Only God Forgives was, it still sits at a 51 on Metacritic, nearly right in the middle. Wooden and blank performances seem to be criticized in The Neon Demon too, but it could also be seen as playing of the shallowness of the people in the industry.

Like it is said in writing, if you know the rules you can break the rules. This can also apply to Refn’s style of film-making. NWR proves that through excellent direction, you can tell stories in an interesting and unconventional way while not adhering to standard practices in the industry.

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