Amongst the slew of trivia that is available for the filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, perhaps the most telling notes come from his connection to another Dutch auteur, the notorious, divisive Lars von Trier. Refn’s father, Anders, has been a close collaborator of von Trier’s since the 90s – he was assistant director and second unit director on Dancer in the Dark, and edited Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s sole masterwork in my opinion. Beyond that, von Trier and Refn have, up until very recently, seemingly had a pretty strong friendship, one that occasionally even looked like that of a mentor and a pupil, though I’m sure both men would flatly deny such simplistic encapsulation of their relationship. And yet, Refn does seemingly fit a similar role in the scope of the current world cinema as von Trier once did: a technical, stylish master with a taste for the provocative.
There is undoubtedly an artistic connection as well as personal, but where von Trier tends toward the operatic even in his most ghastly passage – such as in most of Antichrist – Refn is more indebted to the hallmarks of genre. Refn clearly has a love for the likes of Walter Hill and John Carpenter, as well as cult classics like Silent Running and Logan’s Run, a film he was looking to remake for some time; von Trier has grander aspirations as a filmmaker, a compulsive need to make the audience feel something, anything, at the end of his works. Where there’s increasingly not much to enjoy or contemplate in von Trier’s work, Refn’s genre films in arthouse drag have become increasingly bewitching, and contemplative in their dissection of the masculine aesthetic and behavior.
It’s been 20 years since Refn broke onto the scene with the first installment in his Pusher trilogy, which he continued in 2004 and 2005, and the director has consistently honed his technique since his debut in 1996. In Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, his exacting, tightly realized compositions are often so exhaustingly detailed on the surface as to suggest the shallowness and ugly realities of his subjects in the imagery alone – the underworld, the fashion world, the drug trade, and other such dubious enterprises. And though his films have not always resonated or thrilled the ways he’s clearly intended them to, the cinematic worlds he’s created have always been built upon a healthy skepticism about how the world works, from its most celebrated enterprises down to its most insidious.
With The Neon Demon just about to hit theaters, I decided to take a look at Refn’s filmography thus far and rank it from worst to best.