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Is Nicolas Winding Refn Betraying His Own Talent?

Two weekends ago, Nicolas Winding Refn’s glitzy surreal horror film “The Neon Demon” opened on 783 screens, and when the weekend was over the box-office tally was far scarier than anything in the movie. Presented as a “mainstream” crossover thriller, the film had grossed just $589,000, with a mind-bendingly low per-screen average of $752. When a movie that’s striving to be a work of art falls on its face commercially, there’s no shame in that failure. The history of cinema is dotted with great films that didn’t, at first blush, find their audience, and then become appreciated over time. Yet in this case, the failure may contain a lesson.

The reason that Amazon Studios shoved “The Neon Demon” into so many theaters in the first place is that the relatively young company was betting — reasonably, I would say — that the movie, on its gorgeously bloody Day-Glo surface, was studded with trendy hooks that could appeal to a contemporary horror audience. A dark-as-midnight satire of the L.A. fashion world, “The Neon Demon” features the up-and-coming Elle Fanning as an aspiring supermodel who is less innocent than she seems. The movie is about fame, glamour, sex, violence, fear, and — literally — the consumer culture, and it’s got images that lock themselves into your mind, as well as a throbbing EDM inferno vibe that’s meant to be both scary and seductive, and is. Yet it’s also a real oddball: a psychodrama without…you know, psychology. Back in May, when “The Neon Demon” premiered at Cannes, some loved it, some didn’t (many viewers, including this critic, were mixed), but the movie proved to be an irresistible conversation piece, and with good reason. It’s an experience. It felt like a film that a lot of people who care about movies would have a burning yen to see.

But, in fact, very few people cared about seeing it, and that should give Nicolas Winding Refn pause. He’s a major film artist (and has been from his first feature, “Pusher,” made 20 years ago), and I respect and enjoy that he goes his own way, but both “The Neon Demon” and the movie he made before it, the loopy slasher revenge opera “Only God Forgives,” raise the question: Is Refn, for all his admirable audacity, going the right way? Or is he now betraying his own talent?

The movie that hovers over that question — that hovers over his career — is, of course, “Drive,” the mesmerizing 2011 thriller that is Refn’s defining international success. It’s a movie that, at the time, was often talked about in terms of its look and aura: the hypnotic cat-and-mouse automotive chases that owed such an arresting debt to the mood of Michael Mann’s “Thief,” and that seemed to unfold in a kind of realistic dream-time; the pulsating nightclub colors that lit up a neo-noir with a neon glow. “Drive” just about dunked you in electric atmosphere.

Yet if you go back and see it a second time, you may be caught off guard by what a captivatingly old-fashioned drama it is. Ryan Gosling, playing a stunt driver who moonlights as an underworld getaway chauffeur and becomes the friendly guardian of Carey Mulligan’s damsel down the hall, is as devoted as the hero of a John Ford Western. Gosling’s acting has an aura, lit by the feelings his character is too chivalrous to speak. Even when he’s beating the bejesus out of someone, you feel the purity — the drive to protect — that’s making him do it. Mulligan matches him, shot for shot, in the way she acts between the lines, her smile as ambiguously beckoning as the Mona Lisa’s. The threat represented by a pair of all-too-everyday gangsters, led by Albert Brooks as an ominous chatterbox, tightens the screws. “Drive” is built not just around Refn’s showmanship but around the vibratory intensity of its actors. It has the excitement of a classic thriller, sealed by the borderline goofy sincerity of the Canadian synth-pop duo College singing the soundtrack anthem “A Real Hero” (“And you have proved to be,/A real human being…”).

“Drive” was about a real human being (a whole passel of them, in fact). But that’s just one side of Nicolas Winding Refn. The other side, which is now threatening to take him over, is his too-cool-for-school hooligan-chic side, his Kubrick-meets-David-Lynch-meets-Kenneth-Anger side, his compulsion to make movies that wow you with their giddy misanthropic designer ultraviolent glee.

I first encountered that side of Refn when I saw “Bronson” (2008), in which a then-unknown Tom Hardy portrays the real-life habitual British prisoner Michael Peterson (who, yes, renamed himself after that Bronson), a bristling sociopath with the bald head and oversize mustache of a circus strongman, who spends the entire film giving a knuckle sandwich to anyone who comes near him. That’s why he can’t get out of prison, why he belongs there and even likes it, and why he becomes — natch! — a tabloid media star. Yet he’s a monster without any real charisma; his brutality is his charisma (in theory, at least). The film has musical moments that evoke the sadistic burlesque of “A Clockwork Orange,” but mostly it makes you think that Refn and Hardy prepared for it by screening “Raging Bull” over and over again and saying to each other, each time, “Whaddya think, too wimpy?” “Yes, far too wimpy.” “Great, let’s destroy that movie.” “Bronson” wants to be the most badass film ever made, but it becomes as dehumanized as its hero by pretending that he’s not dehumanized. The movie isn’t “Clockwork” startling — it’s just “hip” and numb.

That’s the quality that Refn now seems to be going for full-time: a postmodern hellacious flippancy. Let’s be clear: It wasn’t always that way. The director likes to recall how he made “Pusher,” in his mid-twenties, using the money that was supposed to serve as his film-school tuition. And what a film school he wound up giving himself! “Pusher,” unlike “Bronson,” really does earn comparison with Scorsese — the great early Scorsese of “Mean Streets.” Refn takes his hand-held camera into the bars, parking lots, grimy flats, and socialist police stations of Copenhagen to tell the story of a drug dealer (Kim Bodnia) whose debts are pulling him down like quicksand, and his even more scurrilous pal (the Johnny Boy character, played by a jabbering, shaven-headed Mads Mikkelsen in his feature-film debut). Every moment gives you the heightened, privileged sensation that you’re eavesdropping on the lives of actual criminals, that you’re tasting their numbskull effrontery. Refn sustained that feeling through two amazing sequels, “Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands” and the extraordinary “Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death,” the tale of a drug lord that will make you seriously re-think every scene you ever saw in “The Sopranos” in which a body had to be disposed of. The queasy brilliance of “Pusher III” is that it takes the full measure of a gangster’s descent from decency.

What’s the difference between exploring hellbent, insane viciousness and just reveling in it? A truly great movie — “A Clockwork Orange,” “Taxi Driver,” “Natural Born Killers” —  can do both; it can explore by reveling. But when Refn showed up at Cannes in 2013 with “Only God Forgives,” the reason that both critics and audiences turned on him — and were, if anything, maybe a little too hard on the movie, since it does have passages so unseemly they’re gripping — is that they sensed that the filmmaker had turned on them. It’s the same reaction that his fellow Danish directorial superstar Lars von Trier inspired when he made “Antichrist”: the feeling that he’d crafted a PR stunt in the form of aestheticized torture porn. What was missing, in each case, was the flesh-and-blood humanity that had made both filmmakers’ reputations in the first place — replaced, in each case, by a literal overabundance of flesh and blood.

At Cannes two months ago, when Refn presented “The Neon Demon,” the film couldn’t exactly be called more of the same, but it couldn’t exactly be called something different, either. It had enough shiny disturbing imagery to qualify as just what it was trying to be (a horror film), but the key to what was missing was the Elle Fanning character — the hush of blankness that surrounds her as she’s swallowed (literally) by the evils of a cutthroat culture that has spun itself into a glossy mirage of perfection. That’s a resonant theme for horror, but Refn, building on the death-by-vogue style of the 90-second commercial he shot in 2012 with Blake Lively for Gucci Première, turns “The Neon Demon” into a movie that rubs our noses in the underbelly of fashion culture by erasing any trace of feeling as it goes along.

Refn’s next film is an espionage thriller entitled “The Avenging Silence,” and one hopes that he’ll re-plant himself on the map of significance with it. He recently floated the not entirely substantiated claim that he was offered, and then turned down, the James Bond movie “Spectre.” (Given the choice between seeing a Refn 007 picture or “Only God Forgives the Neon Demon Pt. 3,” there may not be many left who would go for the latter.) The weird thing is, you can’t really accuse Refn of failing on his own terms. Yet if you watch “The Neon Demon,” he seems to be erasing his own feelings as an artist, and you can rightly ask: To what end? You can also begin to wonder: Is he heading down the long and winding refn to nowhere?

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