Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Brutal Style, and How It Evolved

Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Brutal Style, and How It Evolved

Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish filmmaker responsible for some of contemporary cinema’s most brutally stylish films. Refn’s parents also work in film—his father is a director and editor and his mother is a cinematographer. His parents found their inspiration in the French New Wave, which Refn compared to the antichrist. He was quoted saying, “how better to rebel against your parents than by watching something your mother is going to hate, which were American horror movies.” He found his own inspiration to become a filmmaker after watching the 1974 American horror film ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’  

After seeing what Kevin Smith was able to do with his extremely low-budget 16mm comedy debut, ‘Clerks,’ Refn decided to make his first film, titled ‘Pusher.’ Like ‘Clerks,’ ‘Pusher’ was shot on 16mm and filmed in real locations with a shoestring budget. ‘Pusher’ would eventually become the first installment in a trilogy of films about a drug dealer with the next installments being completed nearly a decade later. 

His second film titled ‘Bleeder’ is another hard-hitting crime drama—this time, about a group of friends who work at a video store in Copenhagen. His next film, and first English language film, is titled ‘Fear X.’ It stars John Turturro as a man trying to solve his wife’s murder. The film was not well received and was a financial failure and ultimately caused Refn’s production company, Jang Go Star, to go bankrupt leaving Refn over a million dollars in debt. 

But Refn made his comeback with a film titled ‘Bronson’ in 2008. The film stars Tom Hardy in the titular role as a famous English criminal in prison who spent many years in solitary confinement due to his outrageous behavior. The character was loosely based on real-life prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson— named one of the UK’s most dangerous criminals. He followed ‘Bronson’ with ‘Valhalla Rising’—a Viking film shot in Scotland that follows a warrior named One-Eye. 

Several of these films reached some level of acclaim, but they were mostly unsuccessful financially. It wasn’t until 2011’s ‘Drive’ that Refn became a major player in contemporary American cinema. ‘Drive’ is a highly stylized modern day noir film about a Hollywood stunt driver who finds himself up against some of Los Angeles’ most dangerous gangsters. The film really struck a chord with American audiences who praised Ryan Gosling’s silent tough guy protagonist and the 80s synth pop aesthetic. ‘Drive’ ended up winning Refn the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. 

He teamed up with Ryan Gosling again for his most recent film, titled ‘Only God Forgives,’ which he characterizes as a western that takes place in the Far East. The film was shot entirely in Bangkok, Thailand and follows a man coaxed by his mother into taking revenge on an almost supernatural police lieutenant who was responsible for the death of Gosling’s murderous brother. Refn takes the hyper-stylized aesthetic of ‘Drive’ even further in ‘Only God Forgives’ with an intensely powerful soundtrack composed by Cliff Martinez and highly saturated yet brooding neon colored lights, which is possibly related to his colorblindness.  

Refn’s next feature, titled ‘The Neon Demon,’ is set to be released in 2016 and I, for one, cannot wait to see how his creativity continues to evolve.

Tyler Knudsen, a San Francisco Bay Area native, has been a student of film for most of his life. Appearing in several television commercials as a child, Tyler was inspired to shift his focus from acting to directing after performing as a featured extra in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. He studied Film & Digital Media with an emphasis on production at the University of California, Santa Cruz and recently moved to New York City where he currently resides with his girlfriend.

Watch: How Does Nicolas Winding Refn’s Colorblindness Shape His Films?

Watch: How Does Nicolas Winding Refn’s Colorblindness Shape His Films?

Did I know Nicolas Winding Refn was colorblind? No, I did not. But having been thus educated, this little bit of information explains quite a lot about his work’s appeal. Looking at YouTube user Blue Leaf’s piece through this scrim, and given Refn’s own testimony that his colorblindness is what causes him to make all of his films with high color contrast, I begin to understand why films like ‘Bronson‘ or ‘Only God Forgives‘ have the visual appearance they do–and I also begin to understand something about their attitudes: the interest in extremes of morality, the clash of affection and intense violence, the silence versus the noise. Perhaps it’s an obvious point to make about a filmmaker who’s gotten more than his fair share of attention, criticism and fan-dom over the years, but re-investigating the point can’t hurt–and this piece is, at the very least, a thrilling watch.

WATCH: How Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson’ Turns the Prison Movie Genre on Its Head

WATCH: How Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson’ Turns the Prison Movie Genre on Its Head

Although the primary charge in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson derives from the electric performance of Tom Hardy, as one of Britain’s most violent criminals, the film builds on a number of sources. As this elegantly stated video essay by Jessie McGoff points out, directors from Jim Sheridan to Stanley Kubrick can be found inside this complex, alarming, surreal work. Refn, in this essayist’s estimation, rewrites the work of these ancestors, not so much exploiting them as putting a new face on them. And, in so doing, Refn updates our conception of the "prison film," a genre which one would think had run out of potential.

WATCH: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, Screen Quadrants Tell A Story of Desire: A Video Essay

WATCH: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, Screen Quadrants Tell A Story of Desire: A Video Essay

In his latest video essay, the second in a week, in fact, Tony Zhou tackles Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Interestingly, he comes at it from a geometrical standpoint, as he did in his last piece, on Kurosawa. Zhou shows that, if you look at the arrangement of figures in the film as if they were figures on a plane, their relationships clarify and intensify, and the immense care Refn put into the crafting of the film becomes evident. This is, indeed, an appropriate way to look at this film–often Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan seem as much like visual elements in a canvas as they resemble, in their portrayals of their characters, people we might pass on the street. Tony Zhou is on fire, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Film Violence Is Horrible and Beautiful: A Video Essay

Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Film Violence Is Horrible and Beautiful: A Video Essay

This video essay, in showing us the most violent snippets in Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, including films such as Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives, raises an important question. A couple of questions, really. The scenes Dávid Velenczei has assembled include a shot of good ol’ Albert Brooks stabbing a hapless old friend more than repeatedly; a man being strangled by two thugs, a rope, and the force of gravity; a lot of bloodied faces; many bloodied mouths; and the fairly blank face of Ryan Gosling as a visual thread. The scenes here are very difficult to watch, but they’re also beautiful: precise, elaborately composed, lush. So, the first question raised is this: is it okay to eroticize violence in this fashion? For that is, indeed, what is happening. The carnage here is one step away from the Red Shoe Diaries in its affect and presentation, but that in itself is nothing new. The choreographed gunplay of Brian De Palma’s Scarface; the pastoral annihilation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or The Godfather; the orchestrated trouncing of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, or Casino, or… or… And the viewer responds with a cringe but also a beckoning, like a particularly twisted flower leaning toward light: more, more. Because, as P.T. Barnum might have said, people love this stuff! And the directors in question (a tiny faction of a vast number) know this, and manipulate their viewers from a comfortable and profitable distance, begging the question: is the director morally culpable? Is this the proper use of film? Of course, the questions don’t stop there, or decrease in importance: the biggest of these is whether or not it’s okay to ask if such films are "okay," whether it is appropriate to apply moral judgments to aesthetic evaluations. If Peter Greenaway wants us to watch a man stuffed with food and then cooked for dinner (as he did in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover), do you let the visceral response (roughly translated as "wow, gross") or the analytical response ("beautiful glint on that body-glaze") take hold, or do you acknowldge that the two are linked and have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, each drawing from the other? And beyond that, what’s a "proper" use of film?