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Ranking the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: From ‘Pusher’ to ‘Only God Forgives’

Written by on July 17, 2013 

Despite only hitting any commercial prominence less than two years ago, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn has been an active force since the mid-90s, crafting crime dramas and psychological (on occasion, outright psychotic) thrillers unlike most of what anyone’s been attempting in world cinema. These titles may, on their surface, give off the air of a standard genre exercise, but all operate with a fascinating, hard-to-grasp internal consistency that frequently treads a thin line between the brooding and the absurd, sometimes crossing between one and the other without warning — to the end that boundaries between intention and fault are never 100% clear.

This week brings another such title: Only God Forgives, his second collaboration with Ryan Gosling and first title since 2011’s acclaimed Drive. While those who’ve only seen the latter are sure to be surprised by the former’s manner and style, fans will see it as a return to the days of old and films of lesser commercial repute; in counting down his filmography title-by-title, one can see that it was something of an exception, not the standard. For that, alone, his body of work is hard to ever shake. Check out our rundown below.

9. Fear X (2003)

If nothing else, we can thank Fear X for giving us a Pusher trilogy. Nicolas Winding Refn’s American debut was a monetary catastrophe, eventually bankrupting his upstart film company and forcing the director to recoup finances — consider this his One from the Heart, fellow Coppola fans — with a pair of efforts that will rank higher, here. Past that small historical context? It’s an occasionally gripping, mostly unsteady vehicle for a (otherwise-excellent) John Turturro performance that, nevertheless, deserves to be in a better film. The man at hand doesn’t come off so poorly, either: some affectingly moody visuals are thrown toward a relatively dull, muddied screenplay, in their application guaranteeing that Fear X is not a completely wasted effort. With lethargic pacing, rote plotting, and an incomprehensible ending (for which nobody has ever provided a suitable explanation), however, it’s a title we could mostly do without.

8. Pusher (1996)

Many of the faults which plague Pusher can be almost directly attributed to the evident naïveté of a debut writer-director. It’s a thinly plotted, amateurishly acted crime thriller that seems to think it’s whipping up a clever narrative with compelling characters — and when it isn’t trying to pull us in with a thrilling yarn, the movie makes attempts at playing it “cool” without ever managing to hit such notes. The movie would be far easier to brush off if it a) didn’t come first and b) didn’t set in motion a cornerstone of his filmography, but for those reasons Pusher needs to be confronted, even momentarily. As this list’s ranking will show, however, the jump from first to second feature marked a significant upgrade for the Danish helmer.

7. Valhalla Rising (2010)

Not at all worthy of the outright disregard some threw around, this is a movie which, at its core, at least deserves an “A” for effort. Some two-and-a-half years out from a first viewing, the biggest impressions left by Valhalla Rising are predominantly positive: a beautifully composed / shot aural-visual experience featuring one of the great Mads Mikkelsen’s most physically determined performances. (Consider the way he handles himself in occasional combat scenes, all delivered with crushing savagery in their formal construction.) In the occasional, odd accordance with Winding Refn’s latest title, the more questionable patches — a drug-fueled freakout (complete with attempted [?] rape) is hard to ever wipe from the memory — act more as dints on the occasional pleasures than outright occlusions. Regardless of a final reaction, can you honestly say you’ve ever seen something quite like it?

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