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

This is the final post in a series looking at how Nicolas Winding Refn engages with a recurring notion or approach to 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: Global Hegemonic Masculinity and Cinematic Masculine Archetypes in the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn. This post serves as an examines how violence contributes to the construction of a recurring notion of masculinity in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn. 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.

VIOLENCE AND MASCULINITY

In interviews, Nicolas Winding Refn has stated that he believes cinema does not make people violent, but it does show them how to be violent. In particular, he points to classic gangster films such as Mean Streets (1973) and The Public Enemy (1931) as primers in how to be a violent man, and considers this to be a case of “life imitating art imitating life” (Refn, 2006). More importantly, however, Refn has stated that his films are often a response to “how the media repackages and glamorizes violence and crime and all these terrible things” that he considers immoral (Westcott, 2006, online). This might explain why masculinity is often depicted within Refn’s films as being both violent and aggressive; Refn is reflecting and reacting to a recurring notion of masculinity that is informed by the hegemonic masculine ideal, which often positions masculinity as violent and aggressive (Horrocks, 1994; Jhally, Earp, & Katz, 1999;Robinson, 2000; DeRosia, 2003; Nayak & Kehily, 2008; Rehling, 2009).

Refn contends that classic gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931) teach viewers how to be violent.

The characters in Refn’s films are reacting to a perceived threat to their masculine identities by embodying or appropriating characteristics generally associated with traditional hegemonic masculinity, in particular aggression, violence, competitiveness, and extreme heterosexuality. The characters appear to ascribe to a theme of masculinity that is known as “Give ‘em Hell”, which is often established through extreme courageousness and risky behavior, usually at the expense of an individual’s well-being (Kahn, 2009). In other words, these characters are attempting to remasculinize through violence (Rehling, 2009). This is particularly true of Frank and Tonny in Pusher, both of whom engage in extreme displays of bravado and aggression that are often at odds with their actual masculine identities and abilities, which fall far short of the hegemonic masculine ideal. For instance, after an evening spent getting shot down by various women at a local dance club, Frank and Tonny wind up at a local bar to finish the night off with another drink and bit of homosocial bonding through the act of roughhousing. While the conflict between the two men appears to be antagonistic, it quickly becomes evident that it is just another way for them to establish and reinforce their close friendship. According to traditional notions of dominant masculinity, men are meant to express their emotions only through anger and acts of violence, and therefore, violence is simply another way for men like Frank and Tonny to express their feelings for one another (Canavese, 2013). Thus, the act of play fighting – itself an act of mock violence – is used to establish Frank and Tonny’s manliness, while at the same time strengthening the homosocial bond that exists between the two men through the only means by which they can express their affection for one another. More importantly, though, having these two men engage in an act of mock violence as a way of deepening their bonds seems to indicate that the depictions of masculinity in Refn’s films are informed by a recurring notion of masculinity that favors violence and aggression as its defining traits.

Roughhousing or mock fighting is often considered to be one of the few acceptable ways for men and boys to express affection for one another.

Similarly, after Frank is verbally and physically intimidated by Milo’s flunkies, Frank is left feeling weak and emasculated, and in order to reassert his masculine façade, he proceeds to take out his anger on those around him, first on his girlfriend, Vic (Laura Drasbæk), and then on his regular customers. This is yet another instance in which Frank is engaged in an act of complicit masculinity in order to gain the benefits of hegemony; Frank lashes out in an aggressive and violent manner in order to regain the respect and power he has lost due to his own incompetence, but also to regain the benefits of the hegemony that are normally not accessible to him. He does this by attempting to conform to a recurring notion of masculinity that he has learned through consumption of mass culture such as movies and music, all of which reinforce the idea that masculinity is defined by violence.

On the subject of music, Frank and Tonny have also appropriated aspects of heavy metal, punk, and Neo-Nazi subcultures into their own masculine identities, and this is evident particularly in the style of music they listen to. The soundtrack to their lives is one of thrashing guitars, pounding drums, and wailing vocals. Heavy metal and punk music in particular are associated with traditionally masculine aspects such as virility, violence, and aggression. According to Roger Horrocks (1992), heavy metal and punk are examples of “‘hard-on’ music,” because both are so extremely virile, aggressive, and intensely masculine that they eventually and easily cross over into the realm of misogyny (Horrocks, 1992, p. 155). More importantly, though, both genres are also strongly tied to whiteness, which is often considered to be another defining characteristic of the hegemonic masculine ideal (Jhally, Earp, & Katz, 1999; Robinson, 2000; Rehling, 2009; Rosin, 2010). Thus, in their desire to establish themselves as powerful and worthy of respect, both Frank and Tonny have appropriated a number of cultural signifiers that are closely associated with violence and aggression. More importantly, however, they have recontextualized those signifiers into a new hybridized and globalized identity that more closely resembles the hegemonic masculine ideal that favors white, heterosexual, aggressive masculinity. This will be discussed further in chapter three, but it is important to mention it here as it is vital to Frank and Tonny’s construction of a stereotypical masculine identity that draws upon the mythical or hegemonic masculine ideal.

According to Roger Horrocks, heavy metal music is closely associated with violent hypermasculinity.

Violent masculinity is central to the narrative of Bronson, which centers on a character who uses extreme violence as a way of asserting his masculine identity over everyone around him. Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) is prone to fits of rage, and acts out violently at the slightest provocation. He has no respect for authority figures, and often weeps in anger and confusion when his violent urges are put in check, as they are during his imprisonment in the insane asylum. One thing that sets Peterson apart from characters like Frank and Tonny is the fact that he realizes his form of hypermasculinity cannot exist within the framework of a society that rejects it. This is why he thrives in prison, an environment that often encourages men to be aggressive, violent, and egocentric caricatures of masculinity rather than actual human beings. Therefore, prison is the one place where Peterson’s violent hypermasculinity is an asset rather than something that sets him apart from the rest of society, and thus he strives to remain there. This is also why he does not do well when he is sent to the insane asylum; the doctors and orderlies at the asylum attempt to suppress Peterson’s masculinity by regulating it with drugs, keeping him in a near catatonic state. But Peterson rejects this attempted regression of his violent masculinity, because ultimately it is a repression of his own identity. Peterson lashes out violently at the orderlies when they attempt to emasculate him with drugs, and he attacks another inmate in order to be sent back to prison. This is because Peterson rejects humanity in the same way it rejects his brand of violent hypermasculinity.

Clip from Bronson (2008).

It is important to note that Peterson is not simply performing a violent and hypermasculine identity, but rather he embodies violent hypermasculinity. Thus by trying to suppress his violent and aggressive tendencies, the doctors and orderlies are suppressing Peterson’s entire sense of self. This is unthinkable to Michael Peterson, and he rebels in the only way he knows how; through extreme acts of violence and aggression. This gets him sent right back to prison, which is the one place he wants to be, because it is the only place he can truly be himself. Indeed, Peterson’s tendency toward violence is further reinforced every time he is shown stalking around his prison cell, not unlike a tiger that has been caged and is now unable to indulge its predatory nature, so the beast just paces back and forth, waiting to violently pounce on its captors when they make that one little mistake. Additionally, when Peterson proves to be too violent even for his human opponents on the underground fighting circuit, the men in charge decide to have him fight large dogs. It is as though they acknowledge that Peterson is not really a man, but something else entirely, a creature of pure violence. Michael Peterson’s close identification with violent masculinity, then, is yet another indication that Refn is drawing upon or attempting to reflect a recurring notion of masculinity that is primarily defined by violence and aggression.

Valhalla Rising also explores the concept of violent masculinity. The film, which was co-written by Refn, opens with the text “In the beginning, there was only man and nature.” This is followed by a sequence in which tattooed men fight to the death in a mud pit. Among the fighters is One Eye, who quickly establishes himself as the most powerful combatant in the group. It is significant that One Eye is the only character who is kept chained even when he is fighting, as this implies that One-Eye’s violent masculinity is so powerful and overwhelming that his captors simply cannot allow it to be fully unleashed even during those times when it should be. Nevertheless, right from the beginning of the film, Refn appears to be positioning violent masculinity as a natural or inherent phenomenon, with One Eye serving as the supreme manifestation of that phenomenon. Thus, it is evident right from the start that the world of Valhalla Rising is a world of men, and that this world is one of extreme violence, aggression, and competition. One Eye and the other men in the film live within a patriarchal society that normalizes both masculinity and violence, and one that requires men to either embody or conform to dominant notions of hegemonic masculinity in one way or another. In fact, aside from one brief scene, women do not even appear in this film, and thus there is an implication that there is no room for femininity in the world of the film, a world of violence and aggression. The only time women do make an appearance in the film, they are depicted as naked, bound, and fearful of their captors, all of whom are men. Presumably, in the world of the film, women exist solely to fulfill the desires of the male characters, whether those desires are of a sexual or violent nature. It is important to note, however, that the film is entirely devoid of sex, as it is neither depicted nor even mentioned, and none of the male characters in the film express much of an interest in it at all. Thus, it appears to be a homosocial world that is primarily defined by competition, aggression, and extreme violence.

The world of Valhalla Rising (2009) is primarily defined by violence and aggression.

Indeed, One Eye’s relationship with the Christian Vikings is one of competitiveness and aggression rather than actual friendly affection. This is one of the ways that the characters in Valhalla Rising conform to the stereotypical depiction of Vikings on film, in which relationships between men are established through a “masculine display, usually of a physically violent variety, for which only grudging respect, not friendship, is accorded” (Sklar, 2011, p. 129). One Eye and the Christian Vikings are not friends, and they hold no affection for one another whatsoever. More importantly, though, the Christian Vikings do not respect One Eye; rather, they appear to fear him. His altogether powerful and violent masculinity is so overwhelming that even the Christian Vikings, who otherwise embody the concept of dominant masculinity, cower before One Eye. In fact, even the Vikings’ faith in God is not enough to give them the strength to withstand One Eye’s transcendent mythological masculinity. This violent hypermasculinty, then, becomes One Eye’s defining trait, and establishes him as a powerful character that conforms to the Warrior archetype (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye, an embodiment of the violent and powerful Warrior archetype.
Fig. 1: Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye, an embodiment of the violent and powerful Warrior archetype.

Refn explains that he conceived of Valhalla Rising as a way of exploring the evolution of Man, and to follow the character of One Eye as he journeys from a man’s primal beginnings to establishing himself as a powerful warrior, attaining Godhood, and then finally to becoming a man (Refn, 2009). Refn argues that man is meant to sacrifice himself, and that this is ultimately what makes us human, and imbues us with a spirit or soul. As One Eye’s sacrifice is marked by violence in the film, this seems to imply that violent sacrifice is integral to attaining a sense of humanity. This seems to go hand in hand with Refn’s statement that art is an act of violence, particularly if art is indeed what defines us as human beings (Refn, 2008; Burton, 2012). In any event, One Eye becomes another embodiment of the mythical hegemonic masculine ideal that has been constructed and reinforced by mass culture. Refn is once again drawing upon this recurring conception of masculinity to inform the characterization of One Eye, and using it as a sort of cinematic shorthand to establish the character’s physical strength and mythical power, which he can then reflect and comment upon through the character’s violent actions and ultimate fate.

In a similar vein, Refn has often referred to Drive as his superhero film, further implying that The Driver is something more than human (Refn, 2012). Desiree de Jesus (2012) notes that The Driver “is like many traditional comic book heroes in his utilization of his special abilities to fight crime, protect the helpless, and save the innocent” (p. 3). Superheroes are often considered to be the modern equivalent to myths within contemporary Western society, and they are often established as having great powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity (Reynolds, 1994; Morrison, 2012). More importantly, though, superheroes are often linked to violence, and The Driver is no exception (O’Connor, 2013). In this case, however, it is The Driver’s violent hypermasculinity that sets him apart from other men, and marks him as something more than human. Violence is his superpower, and according to Refn, The Driver uses it to transform himself into a superhero so that he can protect the innocent for all the right reasons (Refn, 2012). If superheroes are indeed the modern manifestation of mythical archetypes, the fact that Refn considers The Driver to be a superhero implies that he is situating the character firmly within the context of a mythical masculine ideal. When looked at along with the depictions of masculinity in all three of the other films discussed in this chapter, there is a strong indication that Refn is contributing to the creation of or reflecting a recurring but highly stereotypical notion of violent masculinity. Thus, the depictions of masculinity in Refn’s films appear to construct or conform to a recurring notion of hegemonic masculinity that is defined by three primary traits: stoicism, individualism, and violence.

Fig. 2: As this page from Robert Kirkman's Invincible demonstrates, superheroes often engage in acts of extreme violence. Image retrieved from: http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?258070-A-Ko-vs-Invincible
Fig. 2: As this page from Robert Kirkman’s Invincible demonstrates, superheroes often engage in acts of extreme violence. Image credit: http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?258070-A-Ko-vs-Invincible

CONCLUSION

When considered along with Refn’s discussion regarding cinematic and masculine influences such as Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and others, Refn’s assertion that his films are often about men embodying or transforming themselves so that they conform to a sort of mythical or mythological masculinity indicates that he is indeed contributing to or at the very least reflecting a recurring notion of contemporary masculinity in his own films. Furthermore, an analysis of the films Pusher, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive indicates that this recurring notion of masculinity is primarily defined by stoicism, individualism, and violence. In one way or another, the depictions of masculinity in these four films conform to Canavese’s (2013) definition of cinematic masculine archetypes such as the Stoic Man and the Tough Guy, which often manifest in the form of more specific archetypes such as The Gunslinger, The Gangster, The Warrior, and the Samurai. These masculine archetypes are in turn often closely associated with the concept of global hegemonic masculinity as developed by R. W. Connell, and are often responsible for the perpetuation, reinforcement and normalization of hegemonic masculinity on a global scale and across local cultures. Therefore, it appears as though Nicolas Winding Refn is indeed reflecting a recurring notion or approach to contemporary masculinity in his films.

Closer examination, however, reveals that the characters in Refn’s films serve as a critique of the very depictions of traditional dominant hegemonic masculinity they appear to embody. On the surface, each character does appear to conform to a very traditional idea of dominant masculinity, one that celebrates traits such as violence, individualism, and stoicism. Yet in each case embodying or attempting to conform to a hegemonic masculine ideal results in negative consequences for each of the characters. These consequences include isolation, incarceration, and even death. This is reinforced by the fact that Refn considers his films to be feminine, and that he doesn’t “particularly like men” (Romney, 2010). Indeed, violence is never glamorized or celebrated in Refn’s films the way it often is in many Hollywood films, particularly the sort of action films that are most responsible for perpetuating the hegemonic masculine ideal. Refn is careful to point out that his films are often a response to how the media has packaged violence as something glamorous that is to be admired, and he claims that he is upset that audiences found the criminal aspects in Pusher to be glamorous (Refn 2006).

Therefore, I argue that Refn is constructing or reacting to a recurring notion of masculinity in his films solely to critique the type of stereotypical hegemonic masculinity that is primarily defined by violence and aggression, and that is perpetuated and reinforced by Hollywood films. Refn is destabilizing the concept of global hegemonic masculinity by visually and textually projecting the troubled state of masculinity at the turn of the millennium. He accomplishes this in two very important ways: first, by demonstrating that embodying or conforming to the sort of stereotypical masculinity discussed in this chapter ultimately leads to negative consequences for the characters in his films. More importantly, though, Refn is also able to visually and textually project the troubled state of millennial masculinity by introducing elements of feminism and femininity into the depictions of masculinity in his films, and highlighting the Butlerian performative aspects of gender overall.

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read 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/

DeRosia, M. (2003). An erotics of violence: Masculinity and (homo)sexuality in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In S. Y. McDougal (Ed.), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (pp. 61-84). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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

Jhally, S. (Director), Earp, J. (Writer), & Katz, J. (Writer) (1999). Tough guise: Violence, media & the crisis in masculinity [DVD].

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

Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Nayak, A., & Kehily, M. J. (2008). Gender, youth, and culture: Young masculinities and femininities. (pp. 37-51). New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan

O’Connor, P. (2013, October 30). Geek culture in therapy: Superheroes as modern myth. Retrieved from http://comicspedia.blogspot.com/2013/10/superheroes-as-modern-myth.html

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). (2006). Pusher [DVD]. United States: Magnolia Pictures.

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

Rehling, N. (2009). Extraordinary men: White heterosexual masculinity in contemporary popular culture. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Reynolds, R. (1994). Super heroes: A modern mythology. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Robinson, S. (2000). Marked men: white masculinity in crisis. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Rosin, H. (2010, June 8). The end of men. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/

Sklar, E. S. (2011). Call of the wild: Culture shock and Viking masculinities in The 13th Warrior (1999). In K. J. Harty (Ed.), The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of The Nordic Middle Ages (pp. 121-134). Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc.

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

Featured image retrieved from: http://www.ionlywatch18s.com/?p=1329

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5 thoughts on “Violent Masculinity in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Part IV”

  1. hey chris, as I was reading the roughousing part as you talk about play fighting and mock violence as expressions of masculinity, I suddenly remembered a scene in ‘women in love’ by Ken Russel where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed did wrestling match in the nude which seems like what you call a ‘homosocial bonding.’ You should check it, if you haven’t already

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