I’ve been watching a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn movies lately, trying to make sense of the man’s career. Like with a lot of people, my first introduction to the director was the 2011 Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive, a brilliant film I find compulsively re-watchable. It’s basically become the Beatles record of my DVD collection, something I pop in when I have no idea what I want to watch. It was then a disappointment when Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, was just as gorgeous, but twice as empty & hard to love as Drive. I left the theater incredibly cold from that movie and didn’t warm up to it at all in subsequent viewings. Working my way backwards through the much more impressive Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and so on, I feel like I’m just starting to get a grasp on Refn’s violently somber & grandiose vibe, something I’ve been trying to grasp for years now.
It turns out I’m not the only one who’s been trying to get a grasp on Refn’s aesthetic. The recent crime thriller Hyena plays like a love letter to the Danish filmmaker, with only a few updates tweaked here or there. The problem is that it isn’t even half as interesting as Refn’s worst film (that I’ve seen so far, anyway). Opening with a slow-motion drug bust in a neon-soaked nightclub, the requisite eerily sad music playing, Hyena declares its Refn love early & often. It seems like the only innovation the film brought to the format was the question “What if Refn’s movies were told from the POV of crooked cops instead of the criminals?” It’s not a question that, when isolated, leaves a lot of room for new ideas or even a basic reason for existing, and the resulting film feels like an empty shell because of it.
That’s not to say that, although empty, the shell isn’t good-looking. There’s some occasionally gorgeous imagery scattered throughout Hyena that almost rewards the patience required to make it through its runtime. It’s just unfortunate that the film also decided to ape Refn’s glacial pacing as well as his visual style, which results in long stretches of crooked cop drama that’s extremely difficult to care about. If nothing else, it feels like there’s a promise here that Refn’s style could possibly inspire other directors to take action movies into fresh, unexpected directions, but Hyena merely hints at that promise instead of actually fulfilling it. It might be a while until both audiences & filmmakers alike get a grasp on how to pull off the Refn trick, but Hyena isn’t even the closest attempt released this year. That honor belongs to Refn-collaborator Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River.