Violence and silence. If you want to make a Nicolas Winding Refn film, take these ingredients, mix them up (go heavy on the violence; include minimal dialogue to taste) and then choose an aesthetic (recommendations: neon, body paint, chiaroscuro and a bit more neon) and a soundtrack, preferably ambient, 80s, or both.
Silence is an impressively powerful cinematic tool, and Refn uses it to great effect. Or maybe it would be more accurate to call it “lack of speaking”. Drive is, of course, notable for the fact that Ryan Gosling’s Driver, whose real name we never even find out, is taciturn in the extreme. Instead, he communicates through curb-stomping*, hammer attacks, and high-speed pursuits. It’s undeniable that Drive is a film of a certain gravitas (a fact helped by the fact it looks amazing and sounds even better), and the relative paucity of dialogue on the Driver’s part is arguably the driving factor in that. There’s status in silence, and bluster is demeaning and often compensatory.
Drive is a better film than Bronson, Refn’s earlier, super-stylized biopic of Britain’s most violent criminal, Charles Bronson. That was a film of shouting, swearing, spluttering brute force and circus-like ridiculousness, a Middle-England pub fight between two sweaty blokes compared the breezy ride along the slick dark expressways and the tight leather gloves of Drive. And arguably it was because the silences, slow-motion and haunting score that punctuate Drive made it seem more moving, provoking more thought.
But Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives (the two films Refn made either side of it) are not better than Drive, despite upping the silence game. The former verges on the highly pretentious. There’s not all that much to be gained from the long silences in the Scottish Highlands and the New World other than—on the audience’s part—an increasing awareness of a distinct lack of plot and characterization.
And Only God Forgives, which sees Gosling given only seventeen lines in the entire film, suffers a lot. There are some impressive bits, including the boxing scene from the trailer and a terrifying torture scene*, and it’s more visually engaging than Valhalla Rising, but these moments don’t stop the film from being—simply put—very boring. There are too many slow-paced silent sections that seem there only to convince us this is somehow an “important” film. It’s not.
So silence is an important tool, for sure, but also one that has to be deployed carefully. Bear in mind that for every silent, brooding nighttime-driving scene in Drive, there is a scene where Bryan Cranston’s bustling mechanic or Albert Brooks’ mobster talk loudly at one another or at the Driver himself. Silence has to have a reason, rather than being a simple substitute for dialogue, and it can’t be employed just to make a certain shot or scene seem somehow profound. Over-deployment cheapens the effect, according to the law of diminishing returns.
Anyway, people like characters to talk in films—just look at the success of Sorkin-style writing in Hollywood and on HBO and Netflix. They don’t have to talk, but you’re not going to make a masterpiece just by having a mute main character. You can be a genius at composition, mise-en-scène, tracking shots—the works—but that’s not really an excuse to skip out on spoken parts if your film contains characters who could speak. More often than not it suggests pomposity, as if speaking roles are “below” the film.
Lost in Translation does silences well, as does Hunger. The documentary Sleep Furiously does them very well, though it does have a soundtrack by Aphex Twin to tide it over and it’s not narrative. The silences here all serve a purpose, and are juxtaposed with other scenes, often comic, that remove some of the tension or at least provide exposition an indication of motivation or exposition. Audiences can’t read characters’ minds.
*Quick warning: these scenes are stomach-churning in how graphic they are.