Nicolas Winding Refn and the Art of Violence: A Visual Analysis

elle fanning from the neon demon

Nicolas Winding Refn is a sensationalist film artist, one of the best and most exciting directors on the scene. He seeks to cause controversy and get people talking about his work. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

Like fellow countryman Lars von Trier, Refn’s a bit of a joker and always good for a quote. He once stated “Art is an act of violence” and that’s arguably why his work is full of stylistic bravado and daring content.

Violence and hero figures feature predominantly, sometimes presented with a supernatural aura. “Valhalla Rising” (2009), “Drive” (2011) and “Only God Forgives” (2013) form a loose trilogy featuring what can be described as celestial punishers—avenging angels doling out vicious beatings to bad people.

Above: A striking image from “The Neon Demon,” so typical of NWR’s cinema.
nicolas-refn-03 the driver in refn's movie, cool silver jacket Cheng in “Only God Forgives.
Bronson, Driver and Chang posed to look as menacing or cool as possible.

Presenting Characters as Icons

Firstly, let’s take a look at movie titles and character names. “Pusher,” “Bleeder,” “Fear X,” “Bronson,” “One-Eye,” “Driver,” “Chang” and “The Neon Demon.” The cinema of NWR is a walk on the fantasy side of the screen populated with figures who might appear in comic books. There is an undeniable comic-book quality to NWR’s filmography. His characters are so intense and violent, even the “Suicide Squad” would steer well clear of them. Collectively, they’re like “The Avengers” on acid; a sort of Extraordinary League of Fucking Mentalists. Neither are all these figures physically-imposing mean hombres, bar Bronson (played by Tom Hardy) and One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen).

What makes them iconic, then? This is where the brilliance of NWR’s skills come into play. It can be a shot designed to make them look powerful through pose, lighting, camera placement, or a weird, improbable action. Take, for instance, Chang in “Only God Forgives.” A diminutive Bangkok copper who enjoys karaoke, when not chasing down thugs, he is able to produce a giant sword from his back. But we never see a scabbard, it’s like he’s pulling the weapon from his spine. In “Valhalla Rising” One-Eye is a mute brute whose physicality is twinned to the locations and harsh terrain of the film’s mountainous setting. It’s as if this slave-warrior has been birthed by the mountains and is made of granite.

Bad-ass characters need to look bad ass on the big screen. This is achieved through costume design as much as lighting and individual actions. “Drive” was NWR’s breakout movie; the audience and critical hit he needed to get to the next stage of his career. Before this, he was seen as a promising type who hadn’t quite made the most of his obvious talent. He’d made his first movie aged 24, but the going had been tough. Before 2008’s “Bronson,” Refn was so broke and at a creative dead end, he was making episodes of “Miss Marple” for British television.

ryan gosling in drive, leaning on a car elle fanning laying down, bloody, the neon demon
elle fanning in white dress, blue lighting
Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning in “Drive” and “The Neon Demon.”

Costume and Lighting

Casting Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and getaway driver in a film noir tale was leant oodles of style and strangeness when the director took on the project. Today, Gosling’s silver scorpion jacket is iconic. But it served a practical purpose as well looking cool. “I wanted [Gosling] to wear a white satin jacket that would illuminate him at night,” he explained. The white satin also works symbolically. Driver is the film’s white knight hero, and “Drive” takes place in LA—the City of Angels.

In “The Neon Demon” Elle Fanning’s Jess is a supermodel preyed upon a trio of witch-like cannibal freaks. Her beauty and success riles them into taking the young girl down. Refn’s latest is a departure because the focus is women and femininity of an entirely toxic kind. One of the film’s big set-pieces was inspired by the art of James Turrell and the use of the colour blue, predominant throughout along with the colour red, according to cinematographer Natascha Braier, was to reflect Jess’s narcissism, inspired by the Greek myth of Narcissus.

bloody faced woman in tub, refn butcher with knife, man hanged upside down, in pusher 1996 fight scene in valhalla rising,
NWR’s sensationalist approach desires the audience be shocked by his imagination.

Portraying Violence

Brutality is a constant theme in the cinema of NWR. He creates worlds in which violent actions have even more violent consequences and outcomes. It’s an approach very much part and parcel of his shock aesthetic, but it is not empty or gratuitous Hollywood-style violence. Sometimes, it can be bone-crunching—“Valhalla Rising’s” sound design is extraordinary—and other times it can be outrageously provocative, but in keeping with the overall aim and tone of the work (Ruby, played by Jena Malone, shagging a female corpse in “The Neon Demon” and later bathing in blood).

Hammers and nails, metal chopsticks, boot heels, baseball bats, skulls bashed in, eyes gouged out—all have featured in provocative moments, designed to repel the viewer and arguably stretch back to his roots in cinematic realism—his debut film, “Pusher,” was released in 1996, at the time when Danish cinema was hyped about “Dogme 95.” Refn, it should also be noted, is a huge fan of horror movies, especially 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” where you think you see more than you actually do.

infamous elevator scene in drive 2011 ryan gosling beating man in elevator, drive club promotor in only god forgives
The elevator scene in “Drive”: a romance scene turned into an act of sickening violence.

Less is More

Take for instance, Driver kicking the gangster to death in an elevator—one of the most electrifying and gorgeous scenes in all of Refn’s work to date. The screen saturated in light, the use of slow motion when Driver kisses Irene (Carey Mulligan), before turning to the thug in the lift with them and proceeding to smash his face in with his boot heel. Refn consulted Gaspar Noé when making the model for the thug’s face—which we seen in a very brief shot—has been caved in. Noé caused major controversy with 2002’s “Irreversible,” which featured a man having his face smashed to pieces by a fire extinguisher, achieved through clever model work and subtle computer animation. The method is seamless. But in “Drive” we think we’ve seen more than we actually have. It’s a clever tactic. Same goes for the moment in “Only God Forgives” where boxing promoter and sex offender, Billy (Tom Burke), is beaten to death—his face a bloody, re-arranged mess, rendered like a Picasso. What we see is repulsive, but the camera does not dwell on the image, it flashes in our eyes, leaving enough of an impression.

Photos © respective film studios.
Martyn Conterio

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Martyn is based in London, England and writes about movies. He has had work published by Little White Lies, The Guardian, Total Film, Grolsch Film Works, Rue Morgue and other quality publications and websites. He is the author of a monograph on Mario Bava's classic horror film, "Black Sunday." An avid soccer fan, he supports... Follow the author @ Twitter and view more articles.

September 26, 2016 Cinema Color Light Special Feature