With its lugubrious pace, stark lighting and taciturn performance by lead Ryan Gosling (their second collaboration after last year's "Drive"), I for one enjoyed the affected, effective piece, even if it didn't completely connect with me throughout.
Still, it's an impressive, often beautiful and provocative film worth considering, even for those that don't succumb to its stylish charm.
Moviefone spoke to director Winding Refn while he wandered the streets of a sweltering New York City.
Moviefone: I suggested on Twitter that my first question was to be "How are you doing?", and have you run with that for fifteen minutes with many introspective pauses. So, how are you doing?
Nicolas Winding Refn: [Laughs] I am battling the heat of New York for a couple more days. Reminds me of Bangkok a little, which is a strange flashback. Ryan [Gosling] and I were hanging out the other day in New York for the premiere. We both feel like this is déjà vu.
I've heard you say you enjoy that your work divides audiences much like the band the Sex Pistols did, really pissing off some people and blowing others away.
I don't want to be the Sex Pistols, because how can you beat them? The idea of being like the Sex Pistols is more interesting because it's the sense of penetration at a level that divides the audience. Whatever you have done, it's reached people in their psyche. People love or hate you for the same reason, it resonates, whatever they experienced becomes part of them.
Is it much more interesting to be hated than to be ignored?
Well, hatred is the opposite of love, so when people love or hate you for the same reason it's like you are in a marriage with the audience.
You take some classical elements and incorporate them with some brutal elements. You're more like a Frank Zappa, someone who reaches out into the visceral while still striving to be artistic, working within genres while breaking them apart, colliding filth with high art. Am I over thinking this? Do you have conversations about such elements in your work or are you just trying to make a movie?
I see your point and I'm a huge admirer of Frank Zappa, so I'll take that as a massive compliment. I think that what you're saying is true in the sense that I approach everything like it was a pin up magazine. It is about what I desire, what arouses me and my fetish and my fantasy. Art is an act of creation, an act of movement of self into a spectator's mind through the eyes, through the hearing, which is how we experience entertainment. On one level [this film] is a revenge thriller, while on the other level it's a man's desire to penetrate his mother even though it repulses him and then arouses him.
Your film seems pretty Freudian. How conscious are you about incorporating such themes at the various levels of development?
It's conscious in the sense that I try truly to be active in a sense of logic in my mind in why I want to see it or experience it when I make it. From the thought to the development to the shooting it's a constant flow of ideas. It doesn't really start to take place until the editing kicks in of what's actually within it.
It's almost like the self-analysis reveals itself at the end and you don't even know what it's heading for until it shows itself.
How conscious are you of these screenwriting tropes that you draw upon when you're creating these projects?
I knew that I wanted to make a fight movie because it would be a commercial commodity and I could get the money fairly quick. It's like a Western, two guys confronting each other. Then I thought, Ok, what's the most dominating image of a fight movie, that's the clenched fist. That's the pure sign of male aggression.
But if you also look at it, it also becomes a symbol of male sexuality. It's a phallus.
Suddenly sex and violence in one movement, the clenched fist, becomes a combination of climax through sex and violence.
I had a conventional revenge gangster setting then infused it with these elements that slowly build into the confrontation between mother and son. If he's chained to his mother's womb, then how can he confront her?
I came up with this sheriff that essentially was going to be the original nemesis between Ryan's character as a metaphysical creation, a man who appears as sexual fantasy . He's a man based on the first testament where God said "you have to fear me so I will be cruel, you have to love me so I will be kind."
All of those elements are absorbed into the story along the way, so when he reaches into his mother's stomach at the end as an act of violence, it's also of penetration. He is able to be reborn by having his arms removed because that's essentially his curse. They are chained to his mother's womb so he needed to be castrated in order to be reborn.
Are you on set with Ryan discussing the Oedipal subtext of the scene, or is it simply that you are going shot for shot looking for the best imagery, with the reflection coming later?
The latter. Image by image, like a pin up magazine, pure fetish. The act of creating is almost childlike, like giving an infant a crayon and a piece of paper.
And once you have those individual elements, I'm guessing the editing process is when you actually find that your story is given life, is given birth?
Very much, yes. It's a constant evolution along the way. That doesn't mean we don't have discussions, Ryan and I, about many different things, but the final product only really reveals itself at the final stages of post-production which is when you see the answer.
That said, what was your biggest surprise from the initial conception to the final work?
I can't say it changed because I didn't have a specific place I wanted to end, so therefore there was never an agenda but chaos.
Was there something that drew you specifically to Bangkok and the Muy Thai world?
It was just that I had been in Bangkok a few times and I found it very intriguing.
Were there references that you drew upon, be they ONG BAK for the Muy Thai style, or Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON that I felt the film shared some elements with?
I think that [fashion photographer] Richard Kern made a huge impression on me when I was in my teens and that reveals itself in this movie.
So there were no specific film allusions that you can point to in terms of the film. For example, are you screening other films while you're shooting this to show your cinematographer specific looks?
No. I just film with what I like to see.