Filmmaker Retrospective: The Vicious Cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most prominent filmmakers in contemporary cinema, not only in his own country, but worldwide. He has made nine feature films up to this moment, all of them written and some produced by him. In Denmark, he may only be less regarded than Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and, of course, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the greatest Danish filmmaker of all time.

Just like Paul Thomas Anderson, Refn is a film school dropout. If there is a generation of directors remarkable for being self-taught, Refn certainly is one of its best examples. Refn’s oeuvre, in terms of quality, has ups and downs; nevertheless, it is so closely-knit that it is an easy task to acknowledge him as an auteur. His films explore the side of human condition that people hardly want to see on the silver screen: uncomfortable and uncanny scenes fueled by violence, not in a Tarantinesque style, but also in a rather peculiar way.

For instance, in the bar scene of Pusher, in which Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) have an argument and the former beats the shit out of the latter; in Drive, especially in the elevator scene, in which Ryan Gosling’s character smashes the head of the henchman who tries to kill him; furthermore, in Only God Forgives, violence is evident in many sequences, but the fight scene between Julian (Gosling) and Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is breathtaking—but apart from violence, Refn is concerned in showing its causes and consequences. Even though violence is a trademark in Refn’s films, it is not an ungrounded or haphazard but a holistic excuse.

If the previous paragraph highlights the use of violence, there is something beyond it in Refn’s films: the human condition. In the Pusher trilogy, themes such as friendship and family are explored and loyalty is a key-word; in Bleeder, friendship is a motif again; in Fear X, family again, or its absence; in Bronson and Valhalla Rising there seems to be something heroic in the self, in the struggles and things that a human being has to endure. In both films the leading characters are enslaved in a sort of system that absorbs them, their essence, if they have any.

In Drive and Only God Forgives, the family element is approached once more: the relationship between Gosling’s character and Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her family, his affection with her son, and the help he offers to her husband, which will compromise his life. In Only God Forgives, it is evident in the oppressive relationship between mother and son. Therefore, thematically speaking, the family issue is usually, if not always, embraced by Refn in his films, something that quite resembles the approach undertaken by his contemporary countrymen, von Trier and Vinterberg.

Stylistically, Refn astonished spectators with his latest film, Only God Forgives. However, the difference between filmic approaches regarding his earlier and later films is whopping. Bronson, his sixtieth film, seems to be the turning point, but it is in Fear X that Refn’s style began to change. If in the Pusher trilogy and in Bleeder Refn explored the use of handheld camera (one of the most peculiar features of Dogme 95, the Danish avant-garde movement of which Refn was never a member), he mostly abandons the handheld camera in Fear X and in his subsequent films, being more careful with his shots and their execution.

One of the best examples is Refn’s best known (and most famous up to now) film, Drive, in which the slowness and meticulousness of the film, its pace and editing, are its most remarkable features.


1. The Pusher Trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005)


If in Refn’s first phase—comprised by the Pusher trilogy and Bleeder, the phase of the Danish films—the constant use of handheld camera is the preferred approach of the director, which can be mistaken for carelessness, it suits his purpose quite well, though.

The Pusher trilogy encompasses the world of drugs and the status of those who deal with it, be it as a drug dealer, be it as a user. It is the first feature film in which Mads Mikkelsen stars. Today he is probably the most famous Danish actor, known first and foremost for living under the skin of the most celebrated cannibal of cinema history, Hannibal.

In Pusher (1996), he portrays Tonny, a young man who has his head shaved, on the back of which is tattooed the word “RESPECT.” There are many others covering his body, from which spectators can label Tonny as a member of a gang or an ex-con, or even as a neo-Nazi. Tonny, however, is not the protagonist in the first film of the trilogy, only in the second (2004).

In Pusher, the leading character is Frank (Bodnia), a young man who makes a living as a petty drug dealer. He also owes money to a big shot criminal, Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Serbian who becomes the protagonist in Pusher III (2005). Milo is the only character that appears in all three films. The trilogy is about a Danish mafia, in which cocaine and heroin are amongst its major products, either trafficked or used throughout the films.

All of the films deal with the family, Refn’s leitmotif (and such a theme is almost always portrayed in gangster films), especially in the last two. In the second this is between Tonny and his father (Tonny finds out that he is a father himself in this segment of the trilogy) and between Milo and his daughter in the third. The first film of the trilogy was a blockbuster, being successful both in Denmark and around the world.


2. Bleeder (1999)

Bleeder (1999)

Bleeder, which also stars Bodnia, Mikkelsen, and Buric, is a film that wanders through many motifs, such as friendship, couple relationship, and…cinephilia. Lenny (Mikkelsen, who now portrays a character totally different from Tonny in Pusher) works for Kitjo (Buric) in a video rental store. There is a scene in which a man shows up and Tonny attends him.

Mikkelsen lists a hundred names of great filmmakers, but the man decides to check the porno section after all. As in the Pusher trilogy, the opening scenes of Bleeder present the characters, with their names stamped in the frame. Romantic relationships are addressed in the film, but not in a jolly way: they are instead followed by a sibling’s guardianship, intolerance, and violence.


3. Fear X (2003)


Fear X introduces a genre in which Refn may not have been successful. Yet, the film has its good moments, such as in the Kubrickian references, mainly in relation to The Shining.

Fear X does not delve into more than one character’s background. Instead it is focused on Harry, a shopping mall security guard who tries to find out why his wife was killed. Harry is portrayed by the talented New York actor, John Turturro. Although best remembered for comedies (Do the Right Thing, The Big Lebowski), he proves his versatility in this film.