"I HAVE A DARK SIDE, and I get it out when I make films," Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn told the New York Times while doing publicity for Bronson, the 2008 film that put him on the map—or at least, the American arthouse map. Refn was already known elsewhere thanks to his Pusher films, a trilogy set in the grimy Copenhagen underworld. 1996's Pusher kicked things off, at which point Refn made two financial failures—1999's Bleeder and 2003's Fear X, the latter starring John Turturro—before returning with the one-two punch of Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004) and Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death (2005), both of which impressed with their skill, humanity, and brutality. Bronson, about a deranged British prisoner, mashed up a tooth-smashing performance from Tom Hardy with post-modern glee; the initially baffling Valhalla Rising (2009) turned out, on repeat viewings, to work as a weird sort of viking-themed sci-fi horror. And then, last year: Ryan Gosling, Drive, and Cannes' Best Director Award. Now Refn's the sort of guy who offhandedly mentions that maybe someday he'll make Wonder Woman starring Christina Hendricks.
If there's a weak link in the Northwest Film Center's Driven: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn series—which collects all of Refn's work except Bleeder and a British TV movie I really want to see, Miss Marple: Nemesis—it's Fear X, which boasts a great performance from Turturro but tries too hard to say too little. It's worth seeing, but it pales next to everything else: the sharp Pusher films, which make dealing drugs simultaneously look like the most pedestrian and most terrifying profession ever; the exhilaratingly rough-and-tumble Bronson; the dour Valhalla Rising; and the just-about-perfect Drive.
Refn's influences are usually worn on his sleeve (Scorsese, Kubrick, Herzog, Mann), but in a big dose like this, the sense one gets from his work is that Refn's unique, unpredictable, and passionate. He's a filmmaker who lets out his dark side—but he's also one with an astonishing command over the thrills that only finely crafted film can offer. I can't wait to see what he does next.