Nicholas Winding Refn Rising
I'm making this thread in response to something I just listened to a few days ago. It raised a subject I consider very much worth exploring.

If you are familiar with Refn (have seen most of his work, in particular Drive, Only God Forgives, and Valhalla Rising) you probably have enough background to listen to this and appreciate what is being said. Thomas and his host, correctly, read a current of religious themes, symbols, and motifs running through and beneath Refn's most famous films and spend the hour focusing on this. More particularly Thomas's interest is in the Christian elements of these works. These are not imagined or projected.

There is a miraculous nature to certain things which happen in Refn's spiritual films. Refn got his start writing hard, notoriously grounded films about Denmark's criminal underworld. Hard, mean movies where nobody has a heroic edge. People are pushed around by big guys and beaten with hammers. By contrast the protagonist of Drive is a peculiar, handsome man who is capable of superhuman feats. Examples raised are the level of physical violence he is capable of, and also his extraordinary abilities as a driver.

Look at what happens at 4:00 to 4:30 in the above scene. The Driver's abilities behind a wheel are beyond Hollywood. He is impossibly good at what he does. And intentionally so. Refn didn't need to give The Driver superhuman abilities for the plot to function. According to Thomas, in the novel which was the source for Drive's plot, this element is not present, the Driver is just "a guy" (I have not read this novel). Thomas rightly perceives that Refn made The Driver more than human

Now I respect Thomas, I don't think it'd be a stretch to say he's adjacent to this forum and our thing. And I liked this talk. They've done a respectable job exploring one of the most interesting filmmakers under the age of 60 currently working. Respectable, but not complete. Everything said here I believe I would agree with, but it's incomplete. The points as stated do not quite make a full picture. 

The reading of Drive presented by Thomas hinges primarily on interpreting The Driver as an angelic figure. And this is not a stretch if you know what to look for. Compared to Refn's past characters he is an extreme contrast. Pusher writes extremely natural and grounded criminals. The Driver's behaviour is strange and awkward not just for a criminal but for a man in general. He seems to exist on Earth with no real motivations or interests of any kind until he meets an innocent and helpless looking woman and her son. He takes an interest in their welfare which is clearly beyond any kind of pragmatic male interests. The other guardian of this mother and son is her estranged husband and the boy's father. Gabriel. Gabriel does not clash significantly with Driver as they both only want what is best for the woman and the boy.

This woman has two male guardians. Gabriel, who means well but is not too capable, and this nameless figure who is capable of miraculous feats of physical performance and violence. Thomas reads this, I believe correctly, that if the woman's husband is Gabriel, the driver is Michael. There's something divine to both of them, but Michael is the warrior. The force and the vengeance.

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The Driver is of course conveniently nameless. Making this interpretation a possibility, but there's nothing explicit or on the nose here. It also means that he is very open to interpretation. But more on that later.

A thematic current is correctly identified by Thomas which runs through Valhalla Rising, Drive, and Only God Forgives. In each film we have religious imagery (far more explicit in the first and last case), seemingly miraculously empowered individuals, and things being very open to interpretation.

In Only God Forgives of course (Thomas's simpler case so it first) we again have a divine figure. This time the senior Thai police officer. Who appears to be physically invincible, is very directly associated visually with the sacred and divine, and is always flanked by two mute, unquestioning servants who belong to a hierarchy.

For contrast, this is what violence looked like in Refn's movies before this run of features.

(That's from 3:15 if the timestamp doesn't work)

Of course a lot more has changed since Pusher. Generally everything is far more visually stylised. The uncomfortable intimacy and groundedness is gone. Now everything is very cinematic. And at times surreal. If one was quite determined to reject the "Refn is making movies about God" position one could say that the miracles are just movie magic. And... I wouldn't entirely disagree. But again, that'll have to wait a moment.

Last relevant film, where I think Thomas comes closest to really getting at what Refn is doing with all of these films, is Valhalla Rising. Again, a film which departs from hard social realism towards miraculous events and surreal presentation. This time set during the christianisation of northern Europe. The film's protagonist, an unnamed killer with one eye is another miraculous man with whom we can draw parallels between his character and certain religious and divine images, ideas, and personages.

Obviously the one eyed evropean warrior is Wotan/Odin. But, as I believe was pointed out in the interview, the course of the film also leads him into christ-like parallels too. This is the most important element in all of these works. Probably most clear here. All of these films represent periods of cultural contact, clash, confusion, overlap, transition, and conversion.

Valhalla Rising can first be understood as a film which is clearly about this cultural transition. It is about a group of vikings who have converted to Christianity, but still seem to behave rather like Vikings with a few superficial changes in rites and symbolism. They encounter a one eyed man who on one hand seems like he might be a frightening and pure embodiment of their old religion. But he also might be the most potentially christlike out of all of them, without ever expressing any intention or desire to do or be so.

This much is acknowledged in this talk by Thomas and his host, but the fact they're focused on Drive, limited to only an hour, and perhaps not aware of certain influences upon Refn's work leaves their analysis a bit short. Interesting things are said about Drive and Refn in this hour. But our picture amounts to that he is concerned with religion and the spiritual, as well as crime. The Driver might be an angel, the cop might be God. That's interesting, but that's not everything. We can fill this picture completely. To move beyond what is talked about in this hour now.

The important and consistent theme that we see begin with Valhalla Rising (chronologically in terms of periods represented, so why not start here?) is perhaps a cynical skepticism towards the idea of true conversions, and an interest in the nature that lies beneath the professions and appearances. Men are men. The divine is the divine. And perhaps what we say and profess and think we believe doesn't make too much difference. Or maybe it does. All of these films are very ambiguous. Refn does not appear to be a churchgoing or bible-reading man, but he does seem rather curious about humanity, in his own eccentric way. I imagine he personally has no hard settled theological answers to any of the questions his films might raise. He is, like the filmmakers who inspired him, primarily a kind of aesthete as far as I can tell, whose fascination with film is very technical and cinematic. He is visual, he does not let a script direct a production.

Now, those inspirations. The title of this thread is an allusion to more than Valhalla Rising. The title Valhalla Rising is an allusion itself to one of the great filmmaker's films of American history. Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. And its sister film Lucifer Rising.

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Yes. Refn is a fan:

This is a rather coy conversation in which they talk generally about getting movies done and what interested them, got them doing things. They are not explaining what their movies specifically are or why they exist. Interesting, but I post it primarily to strengthen the connection between the two artists. There is an obvious creative genealogy here which runs deeper than a shared word in a title.

Anger was a very visual artist whose most famous works contain no spoken dialogue and are instead more like music videos presenting largely spontaneous and unscripted action. Anger's interests were, like this period of Refn's filmography, rather spiritual. But we know perhaps a bit more about where Anger himself stood. His interest in the occult, satanism, and the third reich were no secret.

Lucifer Rising is a depiction of the birth of a new age. The occult awakening and asserting itself over the world. No talking. All sequence of images and music. The obvious connection to Refn is a visually poetic depiction of a non-conventional spirituality. That and an iconic jacket, which I'll get to in a moment.

Scorpio Rising is far more obviously influential and important to understanding what Refn is doing. It has religious imagery like Lucifer, but it has no distinct theology. It is not an occult film. It is instead a hypnotic meeting of pop culture, kitsch, violence, macho, christianity, and an iconoclastic edgelord's Hitlerism. Like Valhalla Rising this is a work in which cultures are coming into contact, clashing, exchanging, perhaps harmonising, and all the while there is perhaps something more base, primal, or essential underneath that might be all that matters. Plastic Americana, vestigial old religion, the taboo other forces of the 20th century. Is their grouped arrangement a battle, a continuity, a harmonisation, a shared funeral pyre? There is an extraordinary sense of vitality and life in Anger's work, he made some of the most beautiful films ever made in my opinion. And there is also a presence of death. Especially in Scorpio Rising.

What makes Scorpio most striking I believe, and what ties it essentially back to Drive, is that Anger introduces American popular culture into his primordial stream of imagery and ideas. He sees in them a kind of power or force, even if they are used ironically. The film does have a sense of humour. Setting a rowdy leather-biker's desecration of an abandoned Church to Peggy March's I Will Follow Him, cutting back and forth between the destruction, an old Hollywood depiction of Jesus, and Adolf Hitler is something he obviously knew was funny. But it's also a rather striking statement. All of them together, back and forth. Biker man's irreverence, kitsch-jesus, Hitler in his prime, ageing pop-music. Are they the same, is someone winning, or are they all passing images and ideas that have to die? Scorpio Rising is not about leather biker-man's inevitable triumph. It's about his inevitable death.

I make no definitive statements about Anger's intentions beyond that I don't believe he had anything definitive to say either. I will repeat myself now, I believe that what made this work striking was the association between pop and kitsch and the sacred. The primordial, and the spiritual. Perhaps at certain times and places in history their weight, power, influence, and fate is all the same.

Valhalla Rising can be understood rather easily in isolation without reference to the above. The title is a nod but not necessary. Drive however, is almost like a narrative adaptation of Scorpio Rising (something Anger was apparently offered an opportunity to make at one point).

Yes, there is Christian imagery in Drive. Concepts are present and represented. But as I said above, I don't believe that this amounts to more than trivia in isolation. The Driver is like an angel... Yes. But The Driver is like a lot of things.

First of all, his jacket. Iconic jackets as key images in a film is Anger cinematic DNA.

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Now Refn didn't write DRIVE on Ryan Gosling's back. But he made his intentions plain enough. It's a received meme that can be repeated without thought now by any remotely in the know guy that The Driver has a scorpion on his back because of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. Very impressive. Repeat it again. But I've never seen anybody point out that this wasn't mister scorpion's first appearance on screen.

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Here he is in Scorpio Rising. He gets the whole screen to himself eighty seconds in. A scorpion on white. A very familiar looking scorpion. This isn't the first design I get when I google "Scorpio". It's him again in Drive. The scorpion. A quick google for the origin reveals that Refn has directly said this in at least one interview, he showed Scorpio Rising to Ryan Gosling and they decided to put it on the white jacket, but the fact simply refuses to stick. An image based on a parable sounds like it conveys more, I get why people want to say it. Their loss, they're missing the real depth behind it.

I agree with Thomas's reading that there are Christian elements in Drive. The protecting guardian in white who works together with Gabriel to protect an innocent woman. Sure. But there are also undeniable allusions to Kenneth Anger in Refn's Spiritual works. He is not creating Christian superheroes. He is creating blurred blurred icons. Figures who stand at the edge of and between ideals, eras, and identities. 

The Driver clearly resembles and can be associated with Gabriel. But there's another tradition he stands within. Another resemblance he bears. His other spiritual and cultural heritage which he stands as a champion of.

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The Driver... looks like The Driver.

One Eye stood between norse paganism and the coming of Christianity. The Driver stands between the end of Christianity and American popular culture.

A perfectly valid and intentionally viable interpretation of the film is that The Driver is a modern day protecting angel. But Refn does not believe that there is one viable answer to these matters. Ryan Gosling is cast and styled and performing the Driver superhumanly, or angelically. Certainly. But he's also cast, styled, and performing a very self-conscious imitation of older hollywood masculinity. Another perfectly valid and clearly intentionally viable interpretation of the film is that The Driver looks so heroic, and yet is so distant and strange, is because he is a man who is imitating a learned heroic ideal which he received from his true religion and cultural inheritance, which is movies and Hollywood. The Driver might look like Gabriel. But he also looks like The Driver. And like a guy trying to look like The Driver.

I feel like the balance between the two ideas of The Driver are perfectly captured by the film's main theme. Fittingly titled 'A Real Hero'. His theme is not an angelic choir, but there's perhaps something that registers as angelic in the female vocals. The tone is retro and nostalgic. It is plastic. It is a plastic culture that has been this way so long that when it thinks back wistfully it hears synthesizers. Synths which bring to mind the cultural artifacts of a better time. The synthesizers of Drive's soundtrack sound like a pop cultural memory of a past era of pop culture. It is the plastic thing imaginable but also so utterly and shamelessly sentimental that it almost feels transcendant. That's Drive. That's Refn's Hollywood movie.

Refn is a European man. A white man. His cultural inheritence is Christianity, as Thomas says. Even if he doesn't go to church or read the bible. BUT, far more importantly and clearly far more influential upon the formation of the man he is, Refn's cultural inheritance is cinema. His received ideas, ideals, manners of thinking, they come from the movies. He might be aware of what the world and people were before that, and how that shaped the movies he watched. He's clearly an intelligent man, I'm sure he does know that. But that doesn't change the fact that there is for the most part apparently a degree of separation. Refn received the world through movies.

Considering this, it should really not be a stretch at all to say that The Driver's distance to the humanity and mundane world around him is ambiguously presented as something divine and alien. But is he an angel sent from heaven, or an angel sent from the cinema? Thomas's interpretation of the driver as an angelic figure is a rather straight reading of what is presented, but The Driver's enduring impact upon popular culture does not stem from that. It comes from the fact he is "Literally Me". He is beloved because autistic men see something of themselves in him. And what do I make of Drive? Both sides are actually right. On a level deeper than most people can appreciate The Driver is written as an autistic film nerd. A contemporary place in relation to culture, history, and divinity cannot be definitively addressed without some acknowledgement of the real myth-like religion of our popular culture. The Driver is a product of this, both as a creation of a film guy, and his character's status as a man living in a world shaped by movies, and now thanks to the film's success he is now also a part of this popular culture. A film about the plastic american religion has been canonised into it.

Thomas called Drive Refn's American film, but I don't think he saw everything. It's not just a Refn film in which people speak English, live in California, and do more Hollywood stuff. This film is about America. This film is Refn's statement on Hollywood's influence upon his life and the world. Hollywood has supplanted God and left us in a haze of memes, dreams, ideals, and car-chases. And where do we go from here?

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If Valhalla Rising stands between a mysterious, primordial paganism and Christianity. and Drive stands between Christian tradition and the pop-cultural void, Only God Forgives is things coming full circle.

Ryan Gosling returns, no longer an angel or protected by miracles. He is not a disturbed American expat living in Thailand with his brother. Their mother also comes into the picture later. They are sick people who seem to have nothing but power and perversion and need driving them. As displayed above already, there is an element of the miraculous in this film. This time in the character of a Thai police officer who comes into conflict with the family over their crimes. Refn himself has interestingly said (in an apparently deleted interview) that he considers One Eye, The Driver, and the Police Officer to be one character, or one force, appearing across time. The other figures are as they are blurred between cultures. The Thai Officer is not a transitional or confused figure. He knows exactly what he is and he is associated with one tradition. The direct continuity between Refn's other depictions of divinity only exists in this spoken statement. But the thematic continuity is clear. He is old religion. He is God. He is what waits for you again when everything else is burned up and spent. Ryan Gosling has gone from a last manifestation of anything divine in America to a refugee fleeing from its emptiness. Which he still feels even as a respected criminal in a foreign land going through its own cultural confusion.

He has visions of this officer. He seeks him. His brother is a sick brute. His mother is an overbearing torturer. The only relief, order, and peace he can seek in his life comes to him through the fists of a foreign authority. A man. An officer of the law. And perhaps a God. Or of course, perhaps an uncannily lucky and skilled man with a God complex.

The interview containing the quote mentioned above is apparently lost to the internet now, but I can give you the quote wikipedia preserves.

Quote:Refn stated in an interview: "The character of One Eye went into Drive then went into the Thai police lieutenant. They're the same character played by three different actors [...] a mythological creature that has a mysterious past but cannot relate to reality because he's heightened and he's pure fetish."[sup][24][/sup]

"Pure fetish". They're mysterious. They're powerful. They contain and embody some kind of force which exists independent of their specific cultural contexts. This mythological force, this creature is equally at home in all of its incarnations. The conflict and unsteadiness in each incarnation's setting only serves to reinforce this point. Things can be changing. Things can feel lost. There can be one god, or another, or no god at all, but it somehow comes back and fits every time.

Ryan Gosling's The Driver looks like an angel, and he arguably is. But he is definitely the thing beneath angels. The perceived force which made us create them. This is the religion of Nicholas Winding Refn. This is how Nicholas Winding Refn shows you God.

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Quote: He is visual, he does not let a script direct a production.

Tying into Anthony's central thesis, this was perhaps the most noticeable thing about Only God Forgives after I watched the movie and then read the script out of curiosity. Refn wisely discarded much of the dialogue he had written for the Thai officer, which would've ruined his mystique and screen presence. Basically in the script, the scene in the brothel where he tortures the European owner meticulously included an extended monologue about colonialism that was rather cliche and would've been too parochial for him to care about as a character. Also the original script makes Chang sing a Johnny Cash song at the karaoke instead, which would severely undermine his crucial foreign Oriental character (more on that later), in favor of a more trivial idea of Chang as similar to a wild west law enforcer. The biggest change is that in the script several characters refer to the Thai officer as the Bodhisattva, and later he refers to himself this way too, even saying he is the guardian of the city. Needless to say, being so explicit about this not only sounds amateurish, like a short story about a foreign land trying to fit in cultural references, but by being so explicit it fails to make the impression that this type of character really is supernatural and beyond any particular culture. The force of nature ideally resists being named.

Viewing OGF primarily as another means for Refn to show off this 'divine' character type (The Thai officers name is apparently Chang in the credits but I don't believe anyone ever says that in the film, much like the Driver remains unnamed) also adds to our understanding of why the movie is set in Asia.
Imagine if Drive took place from the perspective of one of the Jewish gangsters the Driver kills. The growing fear as this guy they thought was just a tool destroys their whole operation. That's essentially the position of Gosling's character in OGF, only transported to the Orient, where he really does find out how much of an outsider he is once he no longer has the protection of his criminal organization. Defying reality, Chang the Thai officer is not only unable to be bribed like most third world law enforcement, he is unable to be killed by hitmen, and extrajudicially kills American citizens though he is ostensibly a policeman. In other words, since the story is told from the perspective of one of the victims of the "divine" type character, the foreign location and culture maximizes the terror, though there is nothing necessarily foreign to the western mind about what Chang represents.
I mentioned Chang is like a force of nature, and Anthony is also right calling him God, as Refn basically did in the script. More specifically, if the Driver was the guardian of the mother and her child, Chang is clearly the God of justice. Chang's unwavering justice is as foreign to Gosling's criminal family who is so used to getting their way, as the Orient is/was foreign to the west. The brutality of his methods (cutting off hands fitting so well into the third world setting, yet also a punishment for criminals in almost every historical period and place) is primarily about this old justice reasserting itself miraculously. This is how Refn makes the setting so important to OGF without turning it into a piece about Asia. In other words, Refn uses the foreign-ness of Chang and Thailand to actually represent the foreign-ness of justice. And when Gosling finally submits to Chang's justice in the ending, like Anthony said, its Refn making the point that this other force/divine exists even though Gosling tried to run from it

I'm also interested in how this overarching character type appears in Refns latest work Copenhagen Cowboy, a series which I know Anthony you've seen, and I have more mixed feelings towards.

Miu the protagonist is perhaps the most obvious example of this character type yet, with her background as a mysterious woman being trafficked into Denmark by Albanian gangsters for her alleged magical powers. These powers are sporadic and don't have any set rules, which is a solid, familiar way of adding to the mystery or awe of her when she uses them. Refn continues his fascination with the oriental by getting her involved with Chinese gangsters in Denmark of all things, and even references his old Pusher series when Miu gets involved with a drug gang through a criminal contact played by the main actor in Pusher 3.

Anyway, what stood out to me was that if someone didn't know that Refn made Pusher they would think this series about crime is totally artificial, somewhat like John Wick "worldbuilding" which relies on an image of "cool" to construct a criminal underworld with no bearing on reality. When in fact, Refn is stripping down or refining his world down to the elements of the criminal underworld he finds most interesting symbolically. As Miu progresses through the series she is first trapped by Albanian whoremongers who are fairly realistic in their petty crime and violence, pimping out women who they have tricked through online scams. These are the realistic immigrant criminals. But then Miu escapes them only to get involved with higher tier criminals who seem to get odder to match her own, perpetually out of place status. The Asian gang leader she meets has headaches that can only be cured by her magic, and she is somehow able to call in a major favor from a powerful criminal lawyer. And of course, this culminates in the Aryan family who's children are a vampire and a serial killer.

One of the reasons I have mixed feelings about the show is that this was the big missed opportunity. Basically, there is a blonde, rich family with a dad who has been all over the world and talks about his penis. A serial killer son (Nicklas) who strangles one of Miu's friends to death in the first episode. And his mysterious sister (Rakel) who is only shown in the last episode being revived from a coma in a coffin shaped bed by drinking the blood of her mother who was killed by Nicklas and eating a cooked human heart. Both brother and sister were interesting as potential areas for Refn to more fully develop his ideas of evil, especially when Rakel threatened Miu in the last episode, a very rare time one of his 'divine' characters showed fear, since throughout the series she was aloof or rather self assured that she could overcome any obstacles.
(Perhaps an analysis of Neon Demon would reveal Refn's idea of evil most thoroughly. I've seen it but my thoughts aren't coming to mind right now)

Of course, there is always the question of 'what if?' What if we got more screening of this family as antagonists, instead of them being teased for a second season that will likely never come? Would their mystique have worn off? I think it would have been more interesting than the large portion of the series which has to do with Miu making deals with the Chinese gang leader to help a mother reunite with her daughter.
Making the 'divine' character a woman is not really an issue, though when Miu physically beats men, Refn could not escape the familiar trope of a small woman inexplicably winning. Apparently his previous tv show Too Old to Die Young also had a 'divine' character who was a woman that could defeat droves of enemies, but she was more morally ambiguous.

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