Feeling off  balance: from noise to silence – with Bronson (2008) and Drive (2011)

“Refn likes to keep his viewers off balance” — a comment made by one of our guests this last week on our film podcast, John Plays the Piano.
Bronson was a very loud and theatrical film, as opposed to Drive which enjoyed its silence more than anything. But what makes the audience of either of these films feel off balance?

The character of Charles Bronson is played by Tom Hardy, and he’s mostly unpredictable. When the audience expects him to lash out and beat someone up he doesn’t always react. Instead, he’ll sit and stare and fester in his anger, like a slow boiling pot.

The nameless character in Drive, played by Ryan Gosling, isn’t as unpredictable because his anger is mostly contained until the right moment comes along for him to pop the lid off and let it out. He’s more in control of himself.

“So where does the anger come from?”

Refn seems obsessed with anger and violence and the idea of Compartmentalization. Refn also mentioned Bronson (2008) being the closest he’ll come to an autobiography. Refn always wanted to be ultrafamous. He empathized with a part of Charles Bronson’s character and expounded upon it — that inner performer.

Refn’s anger could be said to have derived from not achieving that level of “ultra” fame. He tried hard to make his films as “authentic” as possible, even using real cocaine in his earlier Pusher film. In fact, he buried himself under such massive debt that he spent five years digging himself out, reemerging in 2008 with Bronson, less of a film about a prisoner and more of a proclamation: “I will take on whoever fights me!”

“So where did all the noise go? Why so much silence in Drive?”

Refn said all he needed to say. Now he was ready to focus on what he enjoys most: the picture. The most obvious stylistic feature of his films involves the lighting (ironically so, as Refn is colorblind. It may also be a point of irony with his new silence obsession, as he struggled with dyslexia growing up and faced a great deal of trouble learning to read. The main character in Valhalla Rising doesn’t speak).

Emotion, it seems, are more palpable for Refn when they’re lurking beneath the surface. This brings back the element of keeping his audiences off balance. Why do that to your audience?

Today in film we’ve seen it all. We’re in an age of paying homage, where film makers will remake their favorites with a new spin, or pay obsessive detail to the granular quality of the film to mimic a certain decade. It’s as if we’re already bored with the 2010s.

Refn seeks to go against our expectations — but I’m curious, as are the rest of us here at John Plays the Piano — does Refn succeed? Or does he merely recreate the same violent killing spree we’ve seen time and time again? His stories aren’t heavily plotted out, but is there enough lurking beneath the surface that his characters transcend dialogue to explain their motivations?

Let us know! And if you want to hear us chat about it, our podcast is available on Stitcher, iTunes, SoundCloud, and whatever app you use to listen to podcasts.

Episode 4 on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/johnplaysthepiano/episode-4-nicolas-winding-refns-bronson-drive

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