Violent Masculinity in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Part I

This is the first post in a series looking at how Nicolas Winding Refn engages with a recurring notion or approach to violent masculinity in his own films. This series is based on the first draft of the second chapter of my Master’s thesis, titled Gangstas, Thugs, Vikings and Drivers: Global Hegemonic Masculinity and Cinematic Masculine Archetypes in the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn. This post serves as an introduction to the concept, and features a brief introduction to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, as well as a brief look at the four films I am focusing on in my research. As always, this is a work in progress, so if you are interested in quoting any of the information here, please contact me first for permission. Additionally, I welcome any and all feedback, so please feel free to let me know if you have any suggestions about how the work could be improved or altered. Thank you.

INTRODUCTION

In this post, I will examine how Nicolas Winding Refn’s films Pusher, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive engage with a recurring notion of contemporary masculinity and violence. The question of what type of masculinity Refn draws upon in the construction of his own characters is vital to the discussion of his films. In order to determine whether or not this is the case, I will begin by conducting an examination of Refn’s own discussion of his body of work through interviews and DVD commentaries. Along with this discussion, I conduct a textual analysis of the four films I have chosen to look at for the purposes of this study to determine whether or not the depictions of masculinity in each film conform to the recurring notion of masculinity Refn has described. I believe that this analysis will provide insight into how transnational and transcultural media images – particularly those associated with cinematic masculine archetypes – are contributing to the construction of a gender order that includes a conception of globalized hegemonic masculinity. More importantly, this analysis will allow me to situate Refn’s films within the larger discourses surrounding the notion that masculinity is in crisis during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and will contribute to my discussion of how Refn’s films visually and textually project the troubled state of masculinity at the turn of the millennium.

Refn argues that his films, particularly Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive, are about how a person transforms himself into something else. According to Refn, these men attempt such transformation by drawing upon a sort of mythical masculine ideal (Refn, 2008; Refn, 2009; Refn, 2012). Nearly all of Refn’s films feature male characters that are creating their own masculine identities by drawing upon a stereotypical, mythical type of masculinity that is represented by masculine archetypes such as the Gangster, the Tough Guy, the Warrior, and the Gunslinger (Fig. 1). For the purposes of this paper, I am defining this mythical masculine ideal as a primal, unchecked archetypal force that is so potent it transcends any historically or materially located society. Furthermore, this is a brand of masculinity that exists primarily within media images, particularly those perpetuated by film and advertising. Indeed, this mythical or legendary notion of masculinity is often “enlarged through pulp fiction and movies and television” and has been perpetuated by recurring media figures such as “cowboys, outlaws and mobsters” (Canavese, 2013, online). Examples include the Man With No Name and Shane (both of whom represent the Gunslinger archetype), Rambo (who represents the Warrior), Yojimbo (the Samurai), and Kowalski in the film Vanishing Point (who represents a silent, more existential end of the mythological masculine spectrum). Furthermore, these archetypes are primarily defined by three specific traits that are often associated with the hegemonic masculine ideal. These traits are silence, individualism, and violence. Refn is making use of these stereotypically masculine traits to engage with a recurring notion of violent masculinity in his films. Ultimately, however, Refn is drawing upon this particular brand of masculinity in order to reflect and critique it, and in the next chapter I will discuss how his films make use of violent masculinity to visually and textually project the troubled state of masculinity at the turn of the millennium. Following this, in the third chapter I will explore how Refn’s use of cinematic masculine archetypes are being used to reflect and critique the concept of global hegemonic masculinity, how it is perpetuated and reinforced through popular culture and mass media, and thus how Refn’s construction of a troubled masculinity could disrupt this global hegemonic masculinity.

Fig. 1: Examples of the mythical masculine archetype as represented in popular culture. From left: The Gangster, The Tough Guy, The Warrior, and The Gunslinger.
Fig. 1: Examples of the mythical masculine archetype as represented in popular culture. From left: The Gangster, The Tough Guy, The Warrior, and The Gunslinger.

There are two additional concepts that are vital to the notion of violent masculinity that is being explored in Refn’s films, and I will define them here. These are dominant masculinity, and complicit masculinity. The mythical masculine ideal discussed above is an extreme version of what Jack S. Kahn (2009) refers to as dominant masculinity, which represents the hegemonic masculine ideal. In Western societies, dominant masculinity is often defined by an emphasis on competition, wealth, aggressiveness, and heterosexuality, and over time this perception of how a man is “supposed” to act has been reinforced and normalized through various institutions such as the media, family, religion and education (Kahn, 2009). This ideal is often not available to the majority of men, primarily because they do not conform to the physical, racial, or economic prerequisites that define the dominant masculine ideal. Therefore, they must engage in acts of complicit masculinity, which describes a performance of masculinity that conforms to and supports the dominant hegemonic masculine ideal (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Kahn, 2009). Therefore, even if men do not embody a form of masculinity that conforms to the societal hegemonic ideal of masculinity, they can put on a front that allows them to benefit from the hegemony, which is often defined by traits such as stoicism, individualism, and violence (Kahn, 2009).

I will provide a brief introduction to director Nicolas Winding Refn in which I will discuss his how is globalized identity and his various influences have impacted his approach to masculinity in his own films. Following that, I will provide brief synopses of each of the films I will be looking at in this analysis. I will then explore how Refn’s discussion of mythical masculine traits such as stoicism, individualism, and violence contributes to the recurring notion of masculinity he engages with in his films. Finally, I will conclude by introducing the idea that Refn is drawing upon a recurring notion of masculinity solely in order to reflect and critique it, which he accomplishes by using his films to visually and textually project the troubled state of masculinity at the turn of the millennium, as will be further explored in the next chapter

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: GLOBAL IDENTITY AND MYTHICAL MASCULINITY

Nicolas Winding Refn is a global citizen representing a new type of filmmaker, one whose work is defined by the increasingly globalized nature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This tendency toward globalization is reflected in Refn’s life and work in a number of ways, and these include his upbringing, the films and filmmakers that have influenced him as a director, and the fact that his films that are set in numerous locations both inside and outside of his native Denmark. Refn was born into a filmmaking family: his father is noted Danish film director and editor Anders Refn, and his mother is Danish photographer and cinematographer Vibeke Winding. Refn was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1970, but when he was eight years old his family relocated to the United States and settled in New York (Refn, 2012). After graduating high school, Refn briefly attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but was soon expelled because he bristled against what he considered to be an unbearable and oppressive environment (Smith, 2011). Refn moved back to Denmark where he attended the Danish Film School, but once again, he quickly dropped out (Smith, 2011). Not long after, however, a short film that Refn wrote, directed, and starred in was aired on a Danish cable channel, and this led to him securing the funding to write and direct his first feature film, Pusher (Westcott, 2006).

Refn claims that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the film that inspired him to become a director.

While Refn often points to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper) as his favorite film, and the one that inspired him to become a film director (Westcott, 2006; Foundas, 2012). Yet, there are a number of other films and filmmakers that appear to have had a much more lasting impact on his work, particularly in the way he portrays masculinity on screen. For instance, Refn explains that Sergio Leone is one of his favorite directors, and that the depictions of masculinity in Leone’s westerns – primarily Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name in Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” – are a direct inspiration on the depictions of masculinity in his own films (Tobias, 2011; Gilchrist, 2012). Roger Horrocks (1994) explains the rather narrow conception of masculinity as it is depicted in Leone’s westerns, writing:

“They shrink male existence down to a tiny arena, where exotic and ritualistic dramas take place – nothing like in real life, one might say. At the same time they do illuminate dark and unconscious areas of masculinity, as do the Japanese samurai films. I find them both repellent and fascinating. Are they not a shriek of pain and rage, against the strait-jacket placed upon men by modern society? Yet they have no real solution except an atavistic nostalgia for an era when ‘men were men.'” (p. 153)

The fact that Refn is drawing upon Leone’s films for inspiration indicates that he is dealing with a very specific type of masculinity in his own films, one that is heavily informed by the hegemonic masculine ideal represented by cinematic masculine archetypes such as the Gunslinger as embodied by Clint Eastwood (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Clint Eastwood as Blondie (aka The Man with No Name) in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone)
Fig. 2: Clint Eastwood as Blondie (aka The Man with No Name) in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone)

Similarly, Refn has also named director Sam Peckinpah as a primary influence (Refn, 2006). Peckinpah is most closely associated with a brand of onscreen masculinity that is heavily associated with extreme violence and rugged individualism, as evidenced in films such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Again, the fact that Refn is drawing inspiration from Peckinpah’s films indicates that he is also drawing upon the same sort of violent and individualistic masculinity in his own films. Additionally, Refn has admitted to drawing inspiration from both Andrei Tarkovsky and Alejandro Jodorowsky, particularly in his exploration of man’s relationship to nature, but also in how he makes use of silence in his films (Refn, 2009). Finally, Refn has pointed to a number of other directors, including Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Walter Hill, all of whom have influenced Refn’s violent, mass culture infused cinematic aesthetic (Refn, 2006). I will discuss how the influence of all these filmmakers has contributed to the construction of a recurring notion of contemporary masculinity in Refn’s films later in the chapter. Prior to that discussion, however, I feel it is necessary to introduce the four films I will be looking at for the purposes of my analysis.

The Wild Bunch (1969, dir. Sam Peckinpah)
Mean Streets (1973, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
The French Connection (1971, dir. William Friedkin)

Refn’s first feature film is the gritty and violent Pusher. In the film, Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) are low level wannabe drug dealers trying to establish themselves in Copenhagen’s thriving criminal underground. Frank is approached by a former cellmate who wants Frank’s help in setting up a large drug deal. Frank readily agrees, and goes straight to his supplier, the genial but vicious Serbian drug lord, Milo (Zlatko Burić), to get the dope. Frank admits that he cannot cover the cost of the heroin, and concedes that he already owes Milo some money. Nevertheless, Milo agrees to let Frank take the heroin provided he immediately returns with the money he owes. Unfortunately, the deal goes bad and Frank is arrested, but not before he manages to dump the heroin in a nearby lake. Frank is released after being held for 24 hours, whereupon he immediately returns to Milo and explains the situation. Milo doesn’t buy Frank’s story, however, and the drug lord demands that Frank pay back even more than he already owes. Frank sets out to collect on some of his own debts, which he believes will cover what he owes Milo, but each attempt to raise the money results in a dead end, leaving Frank right where he started. Increasingly desperate to avoid Milo’s brand of brutal punishment, Frank becomes more violent and aggressive in his quest to raise the cash that will not only save his life, but also buy him back the respect he so badly craves. When Frank’s final attempt to get the money also fails, he is left all alone, facing serious injury and possibly even death at the hands of Milo and his thugs.

The Pusher Trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Released in 2008, Refn’s sixth feature film is Bronson, an unconventional biopic that tells the story of Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy), a working class bloke whose only desire in life is to be famous. Peterson’s first taste of fame comes when he is sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office. It is during his time behind bars that Peterson realizes his true calling: he will go on to become Britain’s most violent prisoner. Indeed, Peterson thrives in prison, and he uses the opportunity to indulge all of his violent impulses, attacking guards and other prisoners alike. As a result, Peterson will end up spending nearly 30 years in solitary confinement. At one point, Peterson is sent to a psychiatric ward where he is kept sedated at all times, but this does not stop him from attempting to kill another patient in order to be sent back to prison. Following this incident, however, Peterson is sent to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. While there, he incites a large-scale riot, and this leads to him being branded “Her Majesty’s most expensive prisoner.” Shortly thereafter, Peterson is inexplicably released on parole, and it is during this time that he adopts the persona of Charlie Bronson (inspired by the iconic tough guy actor) and gains a small amount of notoriety as a vicious underground bare-knuckle boxer. It is not long, however, before Peterson commits a crime and is sent back to prison, the one place he is truly happy.

Bronson (2008, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Whereas Bronson ends with an image of a man in a cage, Refn’s next film, Valhalla Rising, opens with a similar image. Set in Scotland in the year 1000 A.D., the film tells the story of One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a mute Viking warrior who possesses supernatural strength. For years, One Eye has been held captive by the Norse pagan chieftain Barde (Alexander Morton), who forces One Eye to battle other prisoners to the death. Nothing is known about where One Eye came from, or even who he is, but his captors believe that he simply emerged from Hell itself. Aided by Are (Maarten Stevenson), a boy slave, One Eye kills his captors, and together he and the boy escape. Almost immediately, One Eye and Are, who becomes something of a surrogate son to the powerful warrior, run into a group of Christian Vikings who are on their way to Jerusalem to join the Crusades. One Eye and Are decide to join the Christian Vikings on their quest, and together they all set out for the Holy Land. Unfortunately, One Eye’s presence seems to doom the voyage, which is quickly beset by misery and misfortune. Their ship is blown off course, and One Eye and his companions end up in a strange and unknown land, where they ultimately come face to face with their own mortality.

Valhalla Rising (2009, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Finally, in Drive, Ryan Gosling portrays a character known simply as The Driver, a stuntman and auto mechanic in Los Angeles who moonlights as a getaway driver. After a tense opening chase sequence, the Driver returns home and almost immediately falls for his new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Their relationship becomes complicated when Irene reveals that she is married, and that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaacs), will soon be released from prison. Meanwhile, The Driver’s partner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), is trying to set up a race team using money he borrowed from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), a pair of local Jewish mobsters. Meanwhile, Standard is beat up by some thugs to whom he owes protection money from his time in prison. The thugs threaten both Standard and his family, and demand that he rob a pawnshop for them in order pay off the debt he owes. The Driver, concerned for the safety of Irene and her son, offers to help Standard pull off the job by serving as his getaway driver. Unfortunately, the heist goes horribly wrong, and Standard is shot and killed. The Driver goes on the run, and soon learns that the double cross was set up by Bernie and Nino, who employed the thugs that beat up Standard in the first place. Fearing for Irene’s life, The Driver bids her good-bye, and sets out for revenge.

Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

With each of these films, Refn draws upon the sort of mythical masculinity discussed above in order to present a version of masculinity that conforms to the notion of violent masculinity perpetuated by many films, which he can then reflect and critique. For instance, Refn asserts that Bronson is about a man who transforms himself into a mythological media figure in order to become famous (Refn, 2008). Similarly, the character of One Eye in Valhalla Rising is a fusion of mythological archetypes from literature and films, including the Gunslinger, the Samurai, and the Warrior. Refn considers Drive to be about a man who is pure at heart, but transforms himself into a superhero – often held up as modern day mythological figures – in order to protect the innocent (Refn, 2012). This theme could also apply to Pusher, as the film is about two characters who attempt to transform themselves into tough guy drug dealers as a way of gaining the benefits of the hegemony. They attempt to mythologize themselves by tapping into a very stereotypical masculine ideal represented by the Gangster archetype (Refn, 2006). Therefore, the primary way that Refn’s films project a notion of violent masculinity is that they all draw upon a mythological ideal of masculinity most closely associated with cinematic masculine archetypes (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Refn's characters are all drawing upon a mythical masculine ideal. Image credit: http://www.nuttyhistory.com/mythology.html
Fig. 3: Refn’s characters are all drawing upon a mythical masculine ideal. Image credit: http://www.nuttyhistory.com/mythology.html

Within the context of global hegemonic masculinity, it is believed that men should assert their manliness by adhering to a set of values that include stoicism, violence and rugged individualism, or resorting to violence against both themselves and others as a way of attaining or conforming to the dominant masculine ideal that is prized within Western society. Indeed, Refn’s characters appear to be the very embodiment of this theme, and they all conform to the various traits of masculinity in a variety of ways. Thus, it could be said that the overtly masculine characters in Refn’s films are meant to serve as stand-ins for an entire generation of men who believe their centralized position of power and dominance within society has been decentered by the forces of feminism, racial equality, and homosexual activism. Furthermore, they embody all the rage, anger, and fear felt by these men, and often these characters seem to represent a last ditch effort to reclaim traditional masculinity and save it from extinction. In part two, I will examine how Refn positions the characters as a reflection of this recurring notion of masculinity that is defined by traits such as stoicism, individualism, and violence. Furthermore, I will argue that Refn does this in order reflect the hegemonic masculine ideal that is represented by the concept of mythical masculinity.

Part II

Part III

Works cited

Canavese, P. (2013, October 12). Archetypes: The stoic man. Retrieved from http://masculinitysummit.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/archetypes-the-stoic-man/

Canavese, P. (2013, October 14). Archetypes: The tough guy. Retrieved from http://masculinitysummit.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/archetypes-the-tough-guy/

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity : Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.

Foundas, S. (2012). Anger management. Retrieved from http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1203-Summer-2012/Independent-Voice-Nicolas-Winding-Refn.aspx

Gilchrist, T. (2012, February 1). Nicolas Winding Refn says ‘Drive’ was about the purity of love with his wife; says Driver was a werewolf. Retrieved from http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/nicolas-winding-refn-says-drive-was-about-the-purity-of-love-with-his-wife-says-driver-was-a-werewolf

Horrocks, R. (1994). Masculinity in crisis. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Kahn, J. S. (2009). An introduction to masculinities. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Refn, N.W. (Director). (2012). Drive [Blu Ray disc]. United States: Sony Pictures.

Refn, N.W. (Director). (2009) Valhalla Rising [Blu Ray disc]. United States: Entertainment One Films.

Refn, N.W. (Director). (2008). Bronson [Blu Ray disc]. United States: Magnet Releasing.

Refn, N.W. (Director). (2006). Pusher [DVD]. United States: Magnolia Pictures.

Smith, J. (2011, September 12). Nicolas Winding Refn, director of “Drive”: Interview on The Sound of Young America. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/sound-young-america/nicolas-winding-refn-director-drive-interview-sound-young-america

Westcott, B. (2006). Nicolas Winding Refn: An interview. Retrieved from http://reverseshot.com/article/refn_interview

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