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Culture Warrior: The Manly Men of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Films

By  · Published on September 20th, 2011

Masculinity has always been the major topic of concern in the work of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Just look at the series he made his name with, the Pusher trilogy, which in three installments provide three very different but equally compelling stories of occasionally brazen, often buffoonish masculinity within various facets of the Copenhagen illegal drug trade. So it is no surprise that the directors latest work (his ‘breakthrough’ years, if you will) are continuously concerned with the turbulent lives of men, culminating this weekend with his most ‘mainstream’ entry, Drive (in purely box-office terms, as Drive in its opening weekend made more than 84x what his previous two films made together, yet the film is still ripe with Refn’s eccentric signature).

Refn’s thematic and narrative preoccupation with masculinity has produced three fascinating portraits in as many years. The temporal and social contexts of Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive couldn’t be more disparate, but between them he’s produced an unofficial trilogy of sorts connected not only through his deliberate pacing and striking, almost invasive visual style, but more importantly through their shared concerns as portrayals of three aggressive men who wander their respective environments in solitude.

Bronson (2008)

One major tenet connecting the various ‘Refn Men’ is the director’s refusal to give his characters simplistic movie psychologies that explain-away (and deflate) their behavior. Tom Hardy’s breakthrough role as Britain’s most notorious career-prisoner Michael Petersen/Charles Bronson provides us perhaps the most we’ve ever known about a given character’s life in a Refn film (Bronson briskly and schizophrenically moves between the many stages of the protagonist’s life), but there are no ‘answers’ provided by Refn’s structure, or by the film’s occasional peek into his childhood. There is no inciting incident for Petersen’s propensity for violence and mayhem. To do so would ultimate cheapen the value of an incredibly enigmatic character.

In fact, while we are invited into nearly every aspect of the titular protagonist’s life, we are always at a distance from him emotionally, psychologically, and in terms of any easily comprehensible motive. This distance is manifested quite explicitly through Bronson’s central framing device: staging the narration guiding the entire film as a theatrical performance. This is clearly not an event in the film’s narrative, and it’s more of a Brechtian move than a suggestion of the character’s deep inner desire. But through this device it’s made clear why we don’t have access to Petersen/Bronson’s psychology even as we are (arguably) experiencing his subjectivity: Bronson has constructed his life through playing the role of the manic criminal, with the world and all the attention and intermittent fame it gives him as his stage.

Through Refn’s strangely offbeat pacing, we see Bronson’s performance of masculinity at play. The moment where he first meets Paul (Matt King) in prison, he sustains his fists for such a long time that his supposedly tough stance is revealed as an empty gesture. The pettiest of criminals, his wreaking of havoc within the prison, while a joy to watch, brings a chaos that is never without a clear sense of calculation and premeditation. These performances of masculinity take on new resonance when Bronson is suggested to be sexually inadequate, emotionally vulnerable, combined with the film’s aura of homoeroticism. He even takes his name (via Paul’s suggestion) from an uber-masculine movie star, suggesting that his entire life is developed through a carefully orchestrated performance of both a certain type of masculinity and the expectations of madness by a character all too aware of what he’s doing. Bronson is exceptional and unique, but the last shot tells us where that leads a man who so extravagantly and so publicly tries to buck the system.

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Mads Mikkelsen, whose career began with Refn’s first Pusher film, stars here as One-Eye, a former prisoner of a Norse chieftan (we understand every thing we need to know about this character during his bloody slaying of his masters) who joins with a group of Christian Vikings on a strange journey to a Holy Land that turns out to be not so promising. Mikkelsen here does something masterful, giving a compelling performance without uttering a single word and with (you guessed it) only one eye available to him. Here Refn nearly takes his methodical pacing to a screeching halt, hypnotizing us with the slow tempo of life 1,000 years ago in between instances of incredible bloodshed. Unlike Bronson, violence here, while possibly requiring skill and calculation, is not a performance but a way of life and a means of survival. It is, in the lives of these men, wholly unspectacular. After all, there are rarely any spectators left to marvel at One-Eye’s fighting skills.

While Bronson does give us character history, Petersen/Bronson is for all intents and purposes a man without a past or history, an unreliable narrator whose life and personality is what he makes of it. Valhalla Rising falls to the other end of the pendulum, but still stays in a realm that is identifiably Refn. Not only is One-Eye a man without a history (the Vikings speculate that he is more than human), but a man without any real ‘present’ as well, never speaking his mind in any circumstance (his supposed inner monologue is articulated by a boy slave) and simply moving from one form of captivity or service to the next. The Vikings, in a sense, are his spectators, left to speculate what his next move may be.

One-Eye is undeniably powerful and menacing, but largely without agency. There is no explanation for his behavior, or his missing eye and voice, other than the apparent fact that he has become skillful at succeeding through the unwritten laws of the land. Valhalla Rising gives us an ugly and merciless ancient world run by men. More than an exceptional warrior, One-Eye is the logical extent of the values placed in conquer and survival.

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling’s quiet, reserved, and unnamed Driver is perhaps the end result of a millennia-long evolution of people like One-Eye. Like One-Eye, he has no history, and like Bronson, there’s no psychology or narrative shorthand to adequately explain his behavior. Where Bronson’s code is self-aggrandizement through acts of lunacy and One-Eye’s is survival through unfettered brutality, Driver lives by an unstated code so familiar to a history of cinema full of powerful but quiet men, like Sergio Leone’s roles for Clint Eastwood, Jean-Pierre Melville’s roles for Alain Delon, and Akira Kurosawa’s roles for Toshiro Mifune. Driver has a code of honor and justice that must be enacted by any means possible, with efficiency, and without hesitation.

Driver is a man with a code in an underworld of people who similarly play by their own rules. The rules of the mob are respect for the hierarchy, increased capital, no overhead, and self-preservation. The rule for an opportunist like Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is to take what money you can whenever you can. The rule for Driver is for you and him to stay out of each other’s business. But when he lets somebody into his life, their business becomes his own (in this context it’s interesting that Drive is the only of these three films where a positive female character exists in a meaningful way).

Of the three men discussed here, Driver seems to be the one who lusts least for blood or the sport of the chase. He certainly loves being behind the wheel, but his cool-headedness throughout suggests that he gets no adrenaline rush worth feeding. Only twice do we arguably see him coming anywhere close to an increased pulse: when he speaks to Nino (Ron Perlman) on a cell phone at a strip club after having attacked one of his goons with a hammer and his sweat drips profusely onto the floor, and in the already famous scene where he kicks a henchman’s face in during a particularly eventful elevator ride. These scenes suggest something else going on with Driver, something unarticulated in his long, quiet glances and low-decibel, economically worded conversations. But Refn isn’t interested in telling us what that is, nor is he interested in knowing it himself. As shown with One-Eye in ancient Europe, and as shown with Bronson in 1970s-80s England, unique, violent, exceptionally masculine men like Driver simply exist. And it’s what they do, not why they do it, that makes Refn’s films perpetually compelling.

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