Violent Masculinity in the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Part II

This is the second post in a series looking at how Nicolas Winding Refn engages with a recurring notion or approach to violent masculinity in his films. This series is based on the first draft of the second chapter of my Master’s thesis, titled Gangstas, Thugs, Vikings and Drivers: Cinematic Masculine Archetypes and Violent Masculinity in the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn. In this post, I examine the concept of stoic masculinity, which is a vital component of the hegemonic masculine ideal. 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.

STOICISM AND MASCULINITY

In addition to violence, aggression, and emotional constipation, one of the defining traits of dominant hegemonic masculinity is stoicism. Whereas men are often positioned as existing outside of language, and their silence is used as a way of emphasizing their lack of power, men who exist outside of language are often positioned as having an excess of power, and they are depicted as not needing language because they instead let their actions speak for them (Lehman, 1993). Indeed, the muscular tough guy characters that embody dominant hegemonic masculinity in Hollywood films (particularly action movies) are traditionally depicted as men of few words who are quick to act (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: In the film Commando (1985), John Matrix (as embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a prime example of the strong, silent type. Image credit: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/tracing/tracing.htm
Fig. 1: In the film Commando (1985), John Matrix (as embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a prime example of the strong, silent type who lets his actions speak louder than his words. Image credit: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/tracing/tracing.htm

Nicolas Winding Refn explains that he is drawing upon the sort of mythological masculinity that is most closely associated with archetypal cinematic figures such as Shane (as portrayed by Alan Ladd in the film of the same name), the aforementioned Man With No Name, and the Samurai (Tobias, 2011). These archetypal characters are primarily defined by their silence and their careful control of language, which often stems from their excessive physical power and personal skill. Indeed, each of these masculine archetypes embodies the idea of the strong, silent hero who allows his actions to speak louder than his words. This sort of stoic masculinity, then, situates these archetypal characters firmly within the context of the hegemonic masculine ideal. Indeed, stoicism has become indelibly linked with archetypal masculine characters, and is often the primary trait that defines them in a cinematic context (Canavese, 2013). These archetypal characters generally inhabit a world of male interaction in which physical power is prized above all, and therefore language has no place within this world. In fact, men who do speak too much are often considered to be weak (Lehman, 1993). Refn claims that he is drawing heavily upon this mythological masculinity in his own films. Therefore, the male characters in his films either embody this stoic, hypermasculine ideal (particularly in the case of One Eye in Valhalla Rising and the Driver in Drive), or they are contrasted against it as a way of pointing out their inadequacies, and illustrating how they fall short of the ideal (such as the protagonists in Pusher and, to a lesser extent, the hyperverbal Michael Peterson in Bronson).

Alan Ladd as Shane, a man of action rather than words.
Clint Eastwood embodies The Man With No Name archetype.
Shintarô Katsu and Toshirô Mifune as Zatoichi and Sassa the Yojimbo respectively, two examples of the Samurai archetype.

According to Refn, part of the reason that his characters have become more silent in his later films is partly because he has become more silent and observational as he has gotten older, and also because he believes in a “less is more” approach to filmmaking (Tobias, 2013; Blake, 2013). Over time, Refn has become an extremely minimalist director; he believes that film is a primarily visual medium, and therefore silence is a profoundly cinematic language (Turney, 2013). Yet, Refn also asserts that this sort of stoic masculinity is a vital component in the construction of the stereotypical masculine model. He argues that the “great heroes are always more silent,” and that this tendency towards silence lends these archetypal characters a sort of unpredictability that sets them apart from characters who are more verbal” (Tobias, 2011, online). More importantly, though, silence is a way for men to maintain the sort of emotional rigidity that defines the hypermasculine hegemonic ideal. This stoicism, then, becomes the defining characteristic of hypermasculine characters such as The Driver in Drive, or the completely mute One Eye in Valhalla Rising, both of whom are marked by an excess of power which is conveyed through their control (or complete lack) of language.

In discussing Drive, Refn explains that he instructed Ryan Gosling to “keep everything inside” during his portrayal of the Driver, and as a result, the character is transformed into an extreme embodiment of stoic masculinity (Blake, 2013, online). Indeed, the Driver is exceedingly guarded when it comes to the use of language and the expression of his emotions, and as the film goes on it becomes increasingly obvious that he prefers instead to let his actions speak louder than his words. Thus, the Driver is a personification of the strong, silent type that represents the hegemonic masculine ideal. Indeed, he is yet another in a long line of stoically masculine cinematic heroes that stretches back to characters embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Toshirô Mifune, and Alain Delon (Palmer, 2011).

The Driver (as embodied by Ryan Gosling) is the personification of the stoic hypermasculine ideal.

More importantly, however, this tendency toward stoicism situates the character firmly within the world of cinematic masculine archetypes, and in many ways, he is positioned as a modern day manifestation of the Gunslinger archetype that is most closely associated with Eastwood’s Man With No Name character (and not solely because The Driver remains nameless throughout the film). Much like Eastwood’s iconic character, the Driver rides into town (in this case, however, he sits behind the wheel of a muscle car rather than astride a white horse), vanquishes the bad guys, kisses the girl (albeit chastely, which points to the character’s ambiguous relationship to women and sex), and finally rides off into the sunset alone. The character conforms to the definition of “The Hero,” and he represents an extreme end on the spectrum of contemporary masculinity that is overly concerned with establishing and maintaining power (Plummer, 2005; Kahn, 2009; Scott & Dargis, 2011). In fact, Refn has repeatedly stated that he considers the Driver to be a superhero, which is an even more extreme version of the mythical hypermasculine ideal represented by “The Hero” (Tobias, 2011; Blake, 2013). Additionally, Refn views the character as being “half-man, half-machine,” and this further reinforces the character’s powerful stoicism by equating him with technology and thus highlighting his emotional rigidity (Blake, 2013, online). Therefore, the character is not necessarily meant to represent a man, but rather a masculine ideal that is defined by physical power and stoicism. This in turn points to an attempt on Refn’s part to tap into a recurring construction of masculinity that conforms to the hegemonic masculine ideal (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Refn considers Drive to be a superhero, and this implies that he is tapping into a mythical masculine ideal that conforms to hegemonic masculinity.
Fig. 2: Refn considers Drive to be a superhero, and this implies that he is tapping into a mythical masculine ideal that conforms to hegemonic masculinity. Image credit: http://anthonyllanes.tumblr.com/post/11466291096/drives-scorpion-jacket

This stoic masculinity is taken to an even further extreme in Valhalla Rising, which features a protagonist who is completely mute, and who conveys meaning almost entirely through his actions (though he is given a voice of sorts in the form of a boy who in some ways acts as the character’s inner monologue). According to Refn, Valhalla Rising represents another attempt to tap into the sort of mythical masculinity he was drawing upon when creating the Driver (Romney, 2010; Tobias, 2011). Refn asserts that the character represents a fusion of mythological archetypes such as the Gunslinger, the Samurai, the Warrior, and the Viking (Refn, 2009). Refn is once again reflecting a dominant masculine ideal that is marked by both silence and the control of language (Lehman, 1993; Turney, 2013). Indeed, this character demonstrates throughout the film that he has no need of language precisely because he possesses an extreme excess of physical power. Thus, One Eye’s stoicism positions the character within the dominant hegemonic masculine ideal, and this indicates that Refn is at the very least drawing upon a recurring and altogether stereotypical notion of masculinity in the case of characters such as One Eye and The Driver.

One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) represents another embodiment of the mythological masculine ideal.

Refn reinforces this notion of silence being integral to physical masculinity when he explains that he admires Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in the film precisely because the actor does not need to talk, and that he is able to convey so much simply with his face (Refn, 2009). This assessment seems to imply that within this construction of masculinity the physical being – in this case, the powerful masculine body – is more important than the ability to verbalize. In other words, hegemonic masculinity is often defined by a physical body that stands on its own, and represents its own individual, without need for additional symbolic interaction. This brings me to the concept of individualism, which is another vital component in the construction of the mythical masculine ideal that Refn is drawing upon in the depictions of masculinity within his films. I will explore this component of mythical masculinity in part three of this series.

Part I

Part III

Part IV

Works cited

Blake, W. (2013). Nicolas Winding Refn & Drive. Retrieved from http://www.somamagazine.com/nicolas-winding-refn-drive/

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/

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

Lehman, P. (1993). Running scared: masculinity and the representation of the male body. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Palmer, L. (2011, September 20). Culture warrior: The manly men of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Retrieved from http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/culture-warrior-the-manly-men-of-nicolas-winding-refns-films.php

Plummer, K. (2005). Male sexualities. In M. S. Kimmel, J. Hearn & R. Connell (Eds.), Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities (pp. 178-195). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

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

Romney, J. (2010, July/August). Hard men. Film Comment, 26-29.

Scott, A. O., & Dargis, M. (2011, July 27). Babies to heroes: A field guide to big-screen men. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/movies/male-archetypes-in-the-movies-big-baby-to-brave-boy.html?_r=1&

Tobias, S. (2011, September 15). Nicolas Winding Refn. Retrieved from http://www.avclub.com/article/nicolas-winding-refn-61788

Tobias, S. (2013, July 18). With the ultra-violent Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn felt the need to exorcise some desires. Retrieved from http://thedissolve.com/features/interview/29-with-the-ultra-violent-only-god-forgives-director-/

Turney, D. (2013, October 13). Nicolas Winding Refn – Only God Forgives. Retrieved from http://moviehole.net/201368878drew-has-a-brief-chat-with-nicolas-winding-refn-for-the-only-gord-forgives-dvd

Featured image retrieved from: http://www.wonderlandmagazine.com/2011/09/shut-up-and-drive-qa-with-nicolas-winding-refn/nicolas-winding-refn-directs-ryan-gosling-in-drive/

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