In an age of blockbusters, auteurs are becoming few and far between. A true artistic style is often homogenised within franchises, with few large-scale films being noticeably unique. However, if we peer beneath the rock that is cinema, our findings are fascinating. Many unique directors will have a penchant for telling a variety of stories, where some will have interests in more specific themes and stories. Nicolas Winding Refn, the polarising Danish director falls into the latter.
Hailing from Denmark, Refn’s parents were also filmmakers, being the director and editor Anders Refn, and cinematographer Vibeke Winding. After being brought up on French New Wave cinema, it was, in fact, the horror genre that ignited the spark for filmmaking.
Themes and Genre
Refn’s work is somewhat split into two halves. His first series of films explore underground crime networks, murders and drug dealings, often within his native Denmark. The latter half of his filmography explores a deeper understanding of the human psyche and more experimental ideas than demonstrated in his earlier work, while still having its foot in the door of the crime-drama.
He has never shied away from discussing his influences that are drawn from a wide range of films. Controversial film Cannibal Holocaust led Refn to realise something that is very evident in later films:
“When I was on my third film… It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it showed me that I shouldn’t make films for my vanity because it will never be satisfying. I should make films like pornography. I should do what I like to see and not what I think great art will be.”
– Nicolas Winding Refn on Cannibal Holocaust
The fetishizing of ideas and motives that Refn employs in his films come from this desire to please his own desires, rather than worry about critics. He has often stated that he likes that his films divide audiences and that even generating anger from them is positive.
Refn’s directing career kicked off with the release of Pusher in 1996. Refn wanted to create a film about a man under immense pressure and used the backdrop of drug deals as a means to tell this. Without glamorising the ‘career’, Pusher utilises a documentary feel, something that is no longer present within his later films. It was a breakthrough success, being one of the first modern gangster films in Danish cinema, and spawned two sequels (although these were a result of financial difficulty that Refn found himself in after his subsequent two films were monetary flops).
Refn’s next film, Bleeder, was another crime-filled affair. Starring several of the same actors as Pusher, Refn was starting to establish a precedent in his cinema output. The next step in his career was his first English language film, Fear X. Once again, Fear X is entrenched with crime, and human fears: the latter of which Refn has experimented with many times in his career.
The fictionalised biographical Bronson was next, after the successes of Pusher II and III, and started to include some of Refn’s now signature cinematography choices. A step away from the documentary-like filmmaking, Bronson is very stylised, using both comedy and shocking violence within the same scene, with ‘imaginary’ scenes where Bronson tells the story to an ‘audience’ in a theatre. It deals with issues of fame, and the lengths that some go to reach it, while also telling the story of the real Charles Bronson.
Refn finally broke away from the underbelly of crime with his next film Valhalla Rising, set in 10th Century Norway. Reuniting with Mads Mikkelsen, Valhalla Rising is split into six parts and stands out from the rest of Refn’s filmography with its setting.
2011’s Drive was Refn’s Hollywood breakthrough and his most critically acclaimed film. Despite being billed as an action film, it’s mostly slow pace and almost-80’s take on downtown LA showcased the film’s true intent: what drives people to do the things they do. His next releases, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, are his most stylistic, metaphorical and controversial. Using very slow storytelling techniques with a lack of dialogue, they again emphasise the human condition and the dark hearts of its characters.
Refn’s style of filmmaking can be broken down into his movie’s subtext. He often creates stories based on inner desires that often include violence. As we’ve discussed, most of his films have a backdrop of crime, and underworlds of criminal networks, or Los Angeles businesses. One of the most important and prominent features of his work, however, is the use of monolithic characters, such as One-Eye from Valhalla Rising, or the unnamed Driver. They speak few lines throughout the film, nearly silent protagonists, but are willing to commit horrific acts to pursue their goals. Often torn characters pushed into dangerous scenarios. They are solitary, with little connection to those around them, despite on the inside wanting to be closer to them.
Artistically, Refn’s style is iconic. His cinematography often mirrors the lead roles we just talked about, with lots of symmetrical frames and use of angles to portray power and solidarity. His colour schemes are often a mix of neon, with a mix of pale colours to really emphasise emotions. For example, Only God Forgives, a tale of revenge and redemption, is lit throughout with red lighting and neon.
Refn’s style and films are often polarising, which is exactly what he wants. Love or hate his work, his work ethic and visual style are enough to study. If you wish to peer beneath Hollywood’s glamour, you never know what you’ll find in the darkness.