Photo/Video: Nicolas Winding Refn attends the Cannes Film Festival/Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock/Hollywood Insider YouTube Channel
Soon after his low-budget Danish crime saga ‘Pusher’ hit the market, there has been little doubt of this man’s ability to paint truly effective and realistic portraits of the underground world. Nowadays, the Pusher trilogy means as much to Scandinavian cinema as ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ mean to Hollywood and just as dialogue is the cornerstone of every 90’s Tarantino movie, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cinema revolves around its flawed characters. As one watches the trilogy giving us a peek at a day in the life of three everymen of Copenhagen’s criminal underbelly, one is left with an exact blueprint of the origins of the vehemently colorful, fatalistic Film-Noir of ‘Drive’.
The vast majority of characters in Refn’s films are represented by criminals and people who frequently succumb to their dark impulses. So it is no wonder that we often observe anti-heroes trying to survive in the most hostile environments (be it the UK prison world or the LA fashion scene) and exposing their vulnerabilities and afflictions to our eyes through brutal flashes of violence, often paired with surreal, colorful palettes. Every Refn movie has a separate sin (or sins) placed at the very center of its machinery and it is through those seven deadly sins that the Danish filmmaker communicates with his audience.
Nicolas Winding Refn – Pride & Greed
In one of the many iconic scenes of ‘The Sopranos’, Tony’s trusted consigliere Syl calls him out about his attitude, saying “seven deadly sins Ton, and yours is pride”. We hear the same negative connotation of pride when Marcellus Wallace educates Butch in ‘Pulp Fiction’ – “Pride only hurts, it never helps”. In the criminal ecosystem of bullying and given the distorted notion of respect, pride is the only currency that the entry-level thugs have in abundance and everyone above them in the street hierarchy will gladly curb any influx of self-confidence displayed by those below them.
And ‘Pusher’, which marked not only Refn’s but also Mads Mikkelsen’s film debut, is all about this very power struggle between the different levels of management within the Copenhagen drug scene. While all three ‘Pusher’ series have different protagonists, all three of them have lots of things in common and show the same tendency of forcing themselves further and further out on thin ice mostly because of their greed – their insatiable hunger to gain an inch of power and authority or squeeze an extra gram out of the drug deal they have to push. Spoiler – just like in real life, it almost never ends well.
Wrath & Sloth
The animalistic, instinct-driven ‘Bronson’ movie, which is Refn’s adaptation of the personal life of UK’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson is, without a doubt, one of the angriest films you will ever see. Despite its theatrical frame and frequent 4th-wall-breaking interludes, Tom Hardy seems so immersed in the wrath of his character that it’s hard to imagine how he managed to resurface from Bronson’s destructive (self-destructive, really) personality.
And while we observe the adrenaline-pumping restlessness of Bronson, the contrast with the outside world and the other UK characters is so sharp that you almost cheer for Charles to punish them for their sloth and complacency – the same way you might cheer for a predator in the savanna chasing down a careless zebra. And you know that that wish will certainly be granted when you are watching a Refn film.
Envy, Gluttony & Lust
While Refn’s 2016 ‘Neon Demon’ is not quite about the gangster world and is mostly free of the masculine archetypes omnipresent in the majority of his other movies, the environment depicted there is no less sinister or disturbing, and certainly no less pessimistic. It is easy to decipher the film as a critique of the fashion industry, but it surely tries to touch on more subconscious, primal impulses of envy and grudges and how far they can be amplified in the dog-eat-dog competitive capitalist industries. The envious female conflict crescendos in a life-threatening hostility that the women carry out through the medium of their bodies, in the world of oppressive beauty ideals and standards.
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Female beauty in Neon Demon is almost a consumable entity, and the final disturbing sequence rendered as an amalgam of brutal domination and gluttony directly responds to the violence inherent in the entertainment industry and, much like other scenes in the film, raises questions about the ways in which young women become objectified and preyed upon in competitive industries. Notably, Jesse’s success in the fashion world doesn’t protect her at all but rather makes her a more vulnerable target.
Just as everyone’s desire to possess Jesse is a blend of lust and jealousy, lust always accompanies other sins that provoke Refn’s characters’ actions. Like the deep kiss that Ryan Gosling gives Irene (Carey Mulligan) in an elevator before crushing an assailant’s skull in a bloody mess (‘Drive’), or like the sadly hilarious scene where Tony tries to engage in sexual activity with two prostitutes (‘Pusher 2’), lust and sexual desire are always mixed with greed, hate and anger and, very rarely, love.
As a true modern auteur, Refn communicates all those sins of his characters through highly stylized aesthetics – a palette of surreal, overwhelmingly saturated colors and high contrasts that have long become his trademark. No wonder that the intensity of red, blue, and yellow is striking – these are the colors traditionally associated with anger, lust, and greed and a way to explain the state of mind of his characters, who are dominated by those deadly sins.
What’s even more striking is that Refn has repeatedly stated that he is partially colorblind, lacking the ability to distinguish mid-tones, and that is why his movies always have such vivid contrasts and aggressive colors. There is hardly anything more deserving of reverence in art than a person who is capable of taking his own imperfections and transforming them into something creatively distinct and admirable, and Nicolas Winding Refn has certainly managed to do that.
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David Tsintsadze is a music industry executive, investigative reporter and a film enthusiast. As far back as he remembers, he always wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. When that started to happen and he began to really understand how it all worked, he found that his love of both the creative arts and the relevant industry allowed him to move between the two worlds and make them relate to each other. David’s belief in meaningful entertainment coincides with Hollywood Insider’s values and in his vision, cultural intermediaries play a crucial role in shaping and exchanging culture, which he firmly believes is one of the main contribution in creation of a free and vibrant society that people want to live in.