May 31, 2016

Why Nicolas Winding Refn's Violence Leaves Us Begging for More (NSFW)

Consider yourself warned: this one is hard to watch.

Much has been said about the quality of Nicolas Winding Refn's canon. Drive ascended into cult status faster than any other film ever made, while Only God Forgives was widely panned by critics and audience alike. In short, his films are divisive. Refn has admitted that he isn't that great of a writer, but for what he lacks in that department, he makes up for in the quality of his violence.

"There is a sexuality to violence that I find very intoxicating. I think that that's what turns me on."

Should a filmmaker be praised his ability to depict violence? If it comes down to terms successfully that filmmaker tells their story visually, then Refn surely deserves acclaim.

The conversations surrounding the ills of violence in media have existed since the invention of the medium itself. Is it breeding hate? Causing patrons to go out and hurt the innocent? And think of the children! With that in mind, let's take a look at how violent films influenced Refn's own childhood.

When he came to America as an 8-year-old from Copenhagen, Refn could barely speak English and was severely dyslexic. For a long time, visuals were the only way he could communicate with his peers. What's more, his dyslexia caused him to have major difficulties reading and writing. The "midnight films" that he was drawn to in his youth were more than just escapism—for him, they would provide a key to communicating. The influence violent movies had on his childhood proved to be invaluable in creating his aesthetic. 

"You can’t just be violent for violence’s sake, because it’s not emotionally engaging, so it becomes bad pornography."

This is all well and good, but what about using violence as a tool in filmmaking? In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Refn explains: "I guess art is an act of violence, in a way. It's an emotional outpouring... I think that violence in the cinema is necessarily a fetish. Emotionally, our artistic expression consists of sex or violence. It all boils down to those two pure emotions. But where erotica or sexuality is not fantasy, because most of us do it, violence, on the other hand, is fetish, is fantasy. There is a sexuality to violence that I find very intoxicating. I think that that's what turns me on."

Refn uses violence as a shortcut to the basic principals of human nature. Like Lars Von Trier and Jodorowsky, the brutal visuals he employs tend to resonate on some deeper level. They pop up in our minds at inopportune moments, much like a guilty secret that weighs us down and provides us with endless fodder for obsession. Evidenced by the quote above, Refn isn't afraid to admit that he has a fetish for violence and is smart enough to realize others have that fetish too. It's not hard to see why he likens his own work to pornography. 

But for Refn, the violence has to be tasteful. The director gave Screen Rant his secret to pulling off good violence. "In each film, the protagonist is forced to have a moral stand," he said. "That moral stand then ends with a consequence. You cannot live life without consequences. Whenever you do something, there will be a consequence. Just like violence only works if there’s a consequence. There’s a build-up. You can’t just be violent for violence’s sake, because it’s not emotionally engaging, so it becomes bad pornography. If you see too much of it, you start to disengage from it, and that’s where violence can become dangerous for the psyche, because it no longer has any meaning. Like people who get addicted to pornography, the sense of empathy and emotion start to deteriorate within them—it’s a frightening effect."

Has Refn gone too far with his violent aesthetic? Let us know in the comments.      

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I love all of Refn's films and I just realized how violent they are after watching that highlight video. He's like Tarantino but builds more on tension and climax where as Quentin uses more humor and is a better writer and story teller. They both love to get bloody and grindhouse gory though.

June 3, 2016 at 7:53AM

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Daniel Duerto
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