Nicolas Winding Refn populates his world with scum: The neon-drenched, narrow corridors of his best-known works, Drive and Bronson, seethe with junkies, pushers, pimps, killers, convicts and sociopaths. Even the characters of his most unlikely film, the 2009 Christian Viking freak-out Valhalla Rising, share the same mindset: primal impulse. The most verbose characters eventually speak in simple grunts, allowing violence to punctuate their messages. At no point do they question their purpose, or weigh consequences.
Brutality is Refn's language. His 15-year arc as a director is one of constant metamorphosis, and this NW Film Center retrospective offers a much better reason than PIFF to spend two weekends in the Whitsell Auditorium. It's a chance to get acquainted with all the nasty, impulse-driven antiheroes spawned from one of the most influential directors working in Hollywood today.
Drive, Bronson and Valhalla are essential (2003's Fear X is not), but to understand Refn's affinity for sympathetic villainy, the Pusher trilogy is required viewing. Refn came out of nowhere (well, Denmark) with the first film in 1996, a wonderfully taut riff on the criminal subgenre of drug dealers racing against death to repay debts.
Pusher (7 pm Thursday-Friday, March 8-9) evolves from its initial, admittedly generic setup and into a living, breathing monster as it progresses, outlining a world where harsh actions seem the only key to salvation. Where Pusher is Refn's herky-jerky debut, Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (9 pm Friday and 7 pm Saturday, March 9-10) is his arrival as an auteur, the catalyst for the director's kinetic style and affinity for sympathetic lowlifes. With Mads Mikkelsen as a heavily tatted mobster's son failing to impress Daddy while neglecting his own child, the nearly flawless film establishes Refn's notion of perceived nobility amid violence and self-importance, a difficult combination of selfishness and selflessness that blurs morality. Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death (9 pm Saturday and 7 pm Sunday, March 10-11) shows us a survivor of this horrific lifestyle in the form of Zlatko Buric, an aged Croatian gangster whose pitiable demeanor belies a fanged monster capable of unspeakable evil, culminating in the series' chillingly procedural final act.
Those familiar with Refn will notice shades of his better-known work throughout the Pusher trilogy, from long silences and blinding neon to the synth scores and persuasive potential of hammers. These are brutal stories of people clawing their way out of death's grasp. Remarkably, though, they point to an aspect of Refn's continued mastery that is often overshadowed by his intense visual style. Many filmmakers ask you to side with self-certain heroes, but few can make you wholly empathize with a man willing to shatter another's skull in the name his own unswayable notion of right.
SEE IT: Driven: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn screens March 8-18 at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org.