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Nicolas Winding Refn: Grim, Dark and Handsome

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a slow proliferation across Europe of films that collapsed the distinction between the ‘grind’ and ‘art’ houses of cinema, variously dubbed the ‘new extremities’ or ‘cinéma du corps’ movements. Echoes of this explosion continue to this day, with a select subgenre of cinema seemingly existing solely for the festival crowd to clutch their pearls over and stage headline-grabbing walkouts. The likes of Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé may be the leading exponents of this subgenre, but one of its more outlying members is Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who unlike his cohorts, willingly courts the trappings of pulp and genre fiction, unabashedly pushing an aesthetic of glossy, brutalist cool.

He’s the sort of filmmaker whose harshest critics accuse of privileging style over substance. However, when one’s subject is the fetishist exploitation of violence itself, that glossiness is an element inextricable from the core messages. Across the films of Nicolas Winding Refn, the common thread linking them all together is their violence. To accuse the films of gratuitousness in this regard would be inaccurate though, as bone-breaking, artery gushing violence is not only key to the aesthetics of the films but their themes. From Pusher to The Neon Demon, Refn has brought audiences stories of individuals wrapped tightly in a violent web.

The Come-up (1996–2003)

The closest thing to a thesis statement on violence Refn has made, came with one of his earliest and most underappreciated works, Bleeder. The film follows the parallel stories of two characters, Leo (Kim Bodnia) and Lenny (Mads Mikkelsen), both of whom could be considered ‘violent’ men. Lenny works in a video store and sits up late at night, alone, watching gory horror movies, most of which he can quote verbatim, and his days crushing on a young waitress (played by Refn’s future wife, Liv Corfixen). Meanwhile, Leo is awaiting the birth of his first child with his girlfriend and, in frustration at losing control of his life, starts acting out towards her in increasingly violent ways. The film’s narrative functions as a direct Aristotelean refutation of the belief violent movies engender actual violence, with shy, harmless horror buff Lenny as a stand-in for Refn himself.

Mads Mikkelsen as video store assistant Lenny in Bleeder (1999)

Since then, Refn has made explorations of the societal ties between male potency and violence his stock in trade. When he made his English language debut in 2003 with the hypnotic Fear X, the film was largely overlooked and received little acclaim, as often happens with European or World directors making their first steps into filmmaking in America. The film’s commercial failure led to a career-low for Refn, whose production company was bankrupted by the poor takings. Based on a script by Requiem for a Dream author Hubert Selby Jr., the independent psychological thriller starred John Turturro as a widowed security guard who returns to the hotel where he and his wife honeymooned, in the hopes of discovering some clue to the conspiracy behind her murder.

The film also marked Refn’s first collaboration with cinematographer Larry Smith—a former collaborator with Stanley Kubrick, working on the sets of both The Shining and Barry Lyndon, which won an Oscar for its groundbreaking cinematography and he worked on Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut—whose broodingly stale, wintry aesthetics Fear X shares much of. As our protagonist gets closer to the ever-elusive truth, the hotel in which the latter half of the film unfolds becomes an increasingly lurid and hellish nightmare, as blood seems to pound in the ears and ooze from the wallpaper.

James Remar as a corrupt cop stalking a near-deserted hotel in Fear X (2003)

Refn’s distinctive visual style of highly saturated colours may be a necessity of his colour blindness, demanding the liberal use of the extremes of the spectrum. Still, it guarantees that whoever his collaborators, be they Smith, or regular set and costume designers Beth Mickle and Erin Benach, his films remain immediately distinguishable. It’s telling that his movies are so contiguous in aesthetics despite using different cinematographers for each of Drive, Valhalla Rising and The Neon Demon. However, Smith and Refn went on to reunite for Bronson, and Only God Forgives.

The Comeback (2004–2010)

Following the humbling of Fear X, Refn returned to Denmark to follow up the tales of criminal ineptitude of Pusher, with two more films (2004–2005), each from the perspective of a different secondary character from the first film. Pusher 2 saw hapless snitch Tommy (also Mikkelsen) struggle to care for his infant child and please his demanding kingpin father. At the same time, Pusher 3 followed the first film’s antagonist Milo (Zlatko Buric, another regular Refn collaborator), now a careworn, low-rent godfather figure, as he attempts to negotiate a botched drug deal and his beloved daughter’s impending wedding. Once again, the films paint depressingly unglamorous portraits of violence and repulsively unwholesome and unfulfilling criminal lives.

One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) executes a gladiatorial rival in Valhalla Rising (2009)

Buoyed by the success of his two Pusher films, Refn began once again to stray into more ambitious, English language films, with fiercely dynamic and brutal works prison biopic Bronson and psychedelic Viking epic Valhalla Rising. In these films though, there was a shift in the nature of the violent worlds the characters inhabited. Slowly at first, the films parleyed their typically saturated colour schemes into more stylised, eccentric and stately works. The violence depicted took on grander, symbolic proportions until the violent denouement of Valhalla Rising became a spiritualistic baptism; a holy ascent into sublime oneness through the self-effacement of the character One-Eye’s violent nature.

Maturation (2011–2016)

These masochistic themes have long bubbled under the surface of Refn’s films and action movies more generally. But few confront them as directly and repeatedly as Refn, and they were expressed most clearly in the pair of films made with Hollywood star Ryan Gosling. Many felt 2013’s Only God Forgives to be a self-indulgent disappointment after the mainstream and critical success of 2011’s Drive, which, yes, is pretty indisputably Refn’s best film (and an all-time personal favourite of my own). However, the two films have more in common than just their lead. They are effectively two sides to the same sadomasochistic coin.

Drive’s nameless protagonist, referred to as ‘driver’, ‘drives’ in many respects. He literally drives cars, yes, but he is forceful, a being of forward momentum, like many action stars. His eventual departure is a given; his living is off of a mode of transport. Yet, unlike so many action stars, he does not abjure emotional attachments. He is quick to fall in love with Irene (played by Carey Mulligan so who wouldn’t be?), soon wins over her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), and has formed a fast friendship with his co-worker Shannon (Bryan Cranston).

It is his violent and amoral criminal associates whom he keeps at a distance, a distinction he enforces brutally whenever crossed. His violent streak is a loathed part of himself, one he relies on for survival, but keeps as his secret shame. A shame Refn instils with a sexual quality through the fetishist relish he takes over the film’s glossy cars, grease-stained driving gloves, the knives and hammers, Gosling’s enviable wardrobe and even the dialogue. Every element of the film is savoured with an epicure’s delight, perfectly accented by not only Cliff Martinez’s ethereal score but the impeccable, glistening soundtrack choices.

This fetishism was pumped up to levels some were clearly uncomfortable with in Only God Forgives. Gosling returned as Julian, the manager of a Thai boxing ring, who incurs the wrath of his ruthless diva of a mother (Kristen Scott Thomas, enjoying herself immensely) when he fails to avenge the justified homicide of his loathsome, sadistic, drug dealing brother. The film’s lurid and overripe Freudian themes and castration imagery were a turnoff to many, but the film is as gamey as it is aesthetically resplendent and more than deserves a reappraisal as one of the most articulate films in Refn’s canon.

The Neon Demon stands alone in Refn’s catalogue as it is to date his only film to feature a female protagonist(s). It followed on from Only God Forgives by flipping the gender focus. Presumably, as a consequence of the social assumption of a more placid, nurturing nature, few films have been made about women and their relationship to violence. In violent cinema, women are usually cast as either victims of violence, in scenarios demanding either tremendous amounts of luck or resourcefulness to escape with their lives, or else empowered lionesses defending themselves and their brood. The protagonists of The Neon Demon are neither battle maidens, plucky heroines, frantic waifs or succubus femme Fatales despoiling men. Instead, they are some oddly mercurial mixture of all of these.

The film mostly follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young ingenue keen to make her name as a model in L.A., who is noticed when she poses for a photographer friend. A friend who is tempered, shy and looks out for Jesse, yet her first pose has her recline on a couch covered in fake blood. Like Lenny, he likes seeing violence not because it feeds sadistic impulses, but because it looks striking, cool and unusual. Jesse soon falls in with a jealous coven of other models, resentful of her flavour of the month success. Their desire to possess her is a blend of lust and jealousy, consummated in the film’s surreal climax. In many ways a more frivolous and playful film than either Drive or Only God Forgives, the film’s gaze is both fetishist yet de-eroticised; recalling Giallo horror more than any other influence, openly relishing its intoxicating atmosphere and unapologetically shallow provocation.

Nicolas Winding Refn has certainly not marked or marketed himself as the most insightful commentator on gender politics; he clearly loves the surface iconography of gender too much to say things that are genuinely progressive or meaningful. However, his films are still luridly enjoyable, often truly unforgettable and easily self-aware enough not to feel brain rotting.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

A reviewer of music and films, I am a graduate of the University of Kent Canterbury where I have a 1st class BA in Liberal Arts and will soon have an MA in Film, specializing in film and gender theory. Whilst at Kent I was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and run a Letterboxd account. I joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020.

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