Nicolas Winding Refn – A Brutal Name to Watch

There are very few directors working today as in control of their craft as Nicolas Winding Refn. With his most recent film, Drive, Refn has had his most evident success yet, and probably his greatest work.  Yet Drive is bound to Refn’s previous work via its thematic material and similar cinematic devices.


Refn’s first huge success came with his prison tale Bronson, a grisly portrait of a deranged sociopath. Borrowing his name from the famous movie star-badass, this Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy – Inception, Warrior) never gets too far away from being completely unhinged. His antics lead to tightened security and a reputation for being the most dangerous man in the British prison system.

Bronson indicates what is perhaps the most ubiquitous aspect of Refn canon, namely, the ability of man to commit acts of great brutality. In a strange way he brings us to sympathize with Bronson; we regard him as slightly comical, anarchic – a fly in the ointment of the establishment. By putting us in the shoes of someone who is excessively violent, killing with his bare hands, Refn slyly exposes our own demons. This theme of brutality continues in his other films, especially, and most frighteningly, in Drive, whose protagonist became violent only late in the film, allowing the transformation to surprise and even mortify us.

Valhalla Rising, the follow-up to Bronson, was as enigmatic and underseen as it is absolutely brilliant. Valhalla Rising is strangely primal, existing on the fringe of cinema itself.  It reminds one most of an ancient poetry, imbued with layers and permutations of meaning, all of which must be felt and experienced more than reasoned.

In terms of visual achievement, what Refn accomplishes in Valhalla Rising is stunning.  It’s ostensibly about the journey of a tattooed silent warrior, a man who previously was forced to fight to the death with other prisoners, but who breaks free and joins the Crusades.  This plot, is very difficult to follow, open to interpretation, and honestly, not nearly as important as the pure visual aesthetic that Refn embraces.

One Eye (Mads Mikkelson), the protagonist of the film, resembles the Driver from Drive in many ways, and one can see the two films as coexisting in that sense.  Both men lack real names, rarely speak, and are drawn to compassion by the presence of the truly innocent – and this is where Refn takes the films to a unique place.

The actions of his heroes are nearly unjustifiable – the brutality, the violence, the killing, all place them squarely in the camp of complicity. These heroes don’t see themselves as such; rather they seek their whole lives to make up for not being heroic enough.  Driver, we assume, has a dark past, and has a dark present for that matter: the look he receives from Irene after the elevator scene – pure disgust – is perfectly warranted. Driver runs in the end knowing he has done one good thing, and this comforts him in some way.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a man who works fast (thank goodness), so more is undoubtedly on the way.  Refn seems to have several projects currently in production, the next of which is titled Only God Forgives.  The IMDb synopsis reads “A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match,” and Gosling is set to star alongside Kristin Scott Thomas (I Have Loved You So Long).  Sounds like it’ll be right up his alley.

-Ben Creech

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