Nicolas Winding Refn is a 46 year old Danish film director, writer, and producer that engineers striking visuals with some punishing violence. There is a lot of flash on the surface which at times conceals his myriad statements about masculinity, which is interesting and at times disconcerting to the uninitiated. Born in Copenhagen, Refn has a unique world view that houses European sensibility with flat out Hollywood enfant terrible tendencies. His films are deadly serious, but so much fun to watch with his fractured male “heroes” blindly groping for meaning.
You may have seen at least one of his films, though you might not know his name. To discuss the landscapes he has created in his films, one must pick and choose which stories merit such mention. I chose three that I find myself returning to again and again. These are works worth seeking out to stream or rent, but for the purpose of this article I want to make the reader aware they exist and certainly worth trying at least once. Plus, they are entertaining as all get out.
Let us start with 1990’s Valhalla Rising.
Valhalla, according to Norse mythology, is a vast hall armored with a roof adorned with shields for half of the slain warriors in battle to live forever in harmony under the god Odin. It is a virtual palace filled with abundant feasts under a rafter of spears. The Hall of the Slain.
Valhalla Rising concerns a one-eyed mute kept as a fighting slave, who escapes with the help of a boy and joins company with a group of reformed Christian Vikings wanting to bring their way of life to a new land…Paradise. With very little dialogue (a risk by Refn, but works in favor for the film), the story is bone crushingly violent, as was the times, and borders on the mystical with “One-Eye” and his apparent visions. His ultimate quest is to journey to Valhalla in the only way he knows; a valiant and honorable death in battle. How he comes about with answers for that journey is what the film purports to present in graphic shocking terms intermixed with moments of tenderness.
The male mystique, as Refn showcases, is a trial by pain, brutal violence, and survival of the fittest. The animal-like behavior is necessary to coexist with the harsh realities of the times. “One-Eye” never once utters a word, but you feel his perplexing confusion and naked curiosity when faced with his own mortality. The boy he befriends (if you want to call it a friendship) is his only concession to being human outside this facade of brutal masculinity. That boy is central to “One-Eye” and his humanity. There seems to be a connection that links his own childhood past with that of the boy walking alongside him. One-Eye sees what he has lost in himself and what he has become. Masculinity among the breathtakingly harsh landscapes of the Scottish Highlands (where the film was shot) lends no room for mistakes and no trust for your fellow man. In the end, “One-Eye” achieves his Valhalla quest, but also regains some of his humanity, thanks to the boy. We only hope the boy, who witnessed the proceedings, will go forward with a newer definition of what it is to be a man; of sacrifice, honor, duty, and a trust in something good. “One-Eye” was no mentor by any stretch of the imagination, but the boy saw something in him more than just the ragged animalistic masculinity around him.
Refn’s visual splendor is on display in Valhalla Rising with the gorgeous muted landscapes, bodies sculpted in mud, and blazing colors within those visions. These men seem to be hewn from the very rocks scattered across the fields. Death surrounds them at all times and yet, “One-Eye” yearns for something greater. A slowly natural progression from the endless circle of violence.
Next up is 2011’s Drive.
This is another of Refn’s “heroes” who are actually bad men striving to be good against their better nature. Drive was Refn’s critical and audience breakout hit. The film boasts some terrific performances with knockout visuals which highlight a far more symbolic foray into the realm of masculinity. The Driver (we never know his real name) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but yields a sideline business as a getaway driver by night. This all sounds somewhat cliched, but director Refn infuses the whole scenario with Driver’s need for salvation, something he discovers he has a need for, but has trouble reconciling that need with his darker nature. Being a man, a good man, is Driver’s quest. Entering within his masculine world of cars, speed, danger, and the solitary male existence is his next door apartment neighbor, Irene and her young son, Benicio. What starts as casual words in the hallway, soon leads to the opening of a whole new world for Driver; the world of hope and a new sense of the masculine mystique. This involves the caring and nurturing of possible loved ones, as opposed to the disposable criminals rushing into his getaway car (and if late per his dictated schedule, he leaves them behind with only the concern for himself and his own safety). He sees an existence beyond his male definition, perhaps one that was created by the Hollywood dream factory that he works in by day.
There is one glorious sequence in Drive where Refn gives the audience everything that is conflicted within Driver and necessarily explodes. I am, of course, referring to the elevator sequence.
This spellbinding scene places danger (a man sent to kill Driver) in between Irene and Driver in close quarters. Driver realizes he has to resort to his darker nature, but before he does, he holds Irene close and kisses her tenderly one last time (notice the lighting change Refn chooses during this kiss) because Driver knows Irene will now finally see his true nature; a bad man capable of punishing exact violence. And she may never want him back after that, for she will never again see him as a good man. The action is sudden and very brutal, however the violence is necessary. This is who Driver is and Irene needs to see him for what he is. When Driver pushes Irene out of the elevator, she looks upon his blood splattered face with horror and confusion as the doors close on him. He has turned into a monster of a man. It is masculinity both ugly and bent. How can a man who tenderly kisses her reverse into animal mode destroying another human all within a matter of minutes? Where does that line in the sand appear between man and animal? Driver recognizes this quality within himself, but cannot help himself. Like “One-Eye”, Driver seeks redemption after this and eventually finds it at the cost of many lives and a hopeless future. His Valhalla is a solitary existence or death after making his great sacrifice on the Los Angeles streets of battle.
Lastly, we discuss one of my favorites, but has turned out to be Refn’s first critical and commercial bomb, 2013’s Only God Forgives.
Only God Forgives is such an interesting, but polarizing film. There are no “heroes” to root for, least of all the leading character Julien; a man so traumatized by his mother and past deeds that it immobilizes him from any real human relationships. Julien wants to love and be loved, but the very idea frightens him because of his conditioning (by his mother) of what kind of a son/man he should be. His mother’s ideas are bizarre to say the least and verge into Oedipal territory. Julien struggles with his inner demons and, like “One-Eye” and Driver, seeks salvation. He recognizes his Valhalla in the form of Chang, a retired Thailand police officer, who exacts redemption (Refn has corroborated this in later interviews) as if he were in fact…God.
Pretentious, you might say? That accusation can be justified on this film, but that is what makes this such a glorious mess to watch. All of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gallery of societal male anxieties are all on display here with a good dose of that sudden punishing violence Refn is known for. He does not glorify or push aestheticism into his violence, but rather makes it an extension of his character’s inner demons which can explode to an ugly effect at any time. Violence has consequences and there are no heroes when one uses it in Refn’s world. Even Chang (God) seems to have no remorse in his actions, only to coldly and systematically carry out his redemption.
So why the fascination with this overly symbolic and (as I admitted earlier) pretentious piece of work? Quite honestly, I have never seen a major released film present such a brutally fractured view of the male psyche in such a stylish celebratory manner. The surface has stunning cinematography, faces that fit with the story, beautiful music, and editing that is peerless. Underneath is nasty, grimy, pulsating with an idea of masculinity gone horribly wrong; so wrong that the man we should be rooting for is pretty much a lost cause. His only hope for Valhalla is to rid himself of the root cause of all his deep seated problems, which is mutilation. Sounds very extreme, but it is his only path to salvation…to his Hall of the Slain as it were. It all sounds so over the top and that is part of its charm. Perhaps Refn intended that, for I cannot help myself from returning to this film from time to time to reaffirm what I had witnessed before.
It is a big beautiful train wreck of a film with a major star and a major director striving to achieve greatness and falling short. It was also the last time the two worked together (Ryan Gosling and Refn). There was talk of a Logan’s Run reboot with these two and I cannot help but wonder if Refn would have concocted only a big budget version of Only God Forgives with Sandman Logan 5 as another fractured male seeking redemption or his Valhalla known (as in the original film) as Sanctuary. Seems tailor made for Refn and maybe that is why the studio scrapped the project before it ever got to script phase.
[director Nicolas Winding Refn (l) with Ryan Gosling on set of Only God Forgives, Thailand 2010]