Nicolas Winding Refn (born 29 September 1970) is a Danish director, screenwriter and producer known for his stylized approach to filmmaking in both conceptual (tackling existential, moral and spiritual matters, often through crime) and visual (incorporating extreme violence and high-contrast colors, often from neon lighting) senses.
Born in 1970 to parents who worked in film, Refn moved to the United States at 11. When he was 26, he rose to prominence by writing and directing the bleak and uncompromising Pusher trilogy, which became a landmark in Danish film as some of the first crime films of the nation to achieve success.
He entered the global mainstream with Drive (2011), arguably his most well-known film.
Known in Denmark as "l'Enfant Sauvage" (French for "the wild child").
- Pusher (1996)
- Bleeder (1999)
- Fear X (2003)
- Pusher II (2004)
- Pusher III (2005)
- Bronson (2008)
- Valhalla Rising (2009)
- Drive (2011)
- Only God Forgives (2013)
- The Neon Demon (2016)
- Too Old to Die Young (2019)
- Copenhagen Cowboy (2023)
Refn's works provide examples of:
- Associated Composer: Cliff Martinez has provided the score for Refn's films since Drive.
- Being Evil Sucks: First used in the Pusher series, where Refn intentionally portrayed the criminal underworld as unglamorous. Many of his other films feature immoral characters suffering as a result of their character flaws and lifestyle.
- Dark and Troubled Past: His characters tend to have very troubled backstories and upbringings.
- Fan Disservice: A specialty of his. He can make very beautiful and handsome people distinctly unnerving to look at. Good examples include Gosling in both Drive and Only God Forgives, Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising and Abby Lee in The Neon Demon.
- Full-Frontal Assault: In Bronson and Pusher II.
- He Also Did: This director of stylish, transgressive films also directed two episodes of Agatha Christie's Marple, the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials and a series of Danish beer commercials featuring said actor.
- Irony: Despite directing Drive, where he makes cars in and out of motion look incredibly cool, he has never learned to drive and failed his test multiple times.
- Mind Screw: He could give David Lynch a run for his money on this one.
- Motifs: Men making their own mythology: Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives.
- Production Posse:
- All his Danish films have been scored by Peter Kyed and punkrocker Peter Peter.
- Since Drive, he has has Cliff Martinez provide the score.
- Since working on Miss Marple, Matthew Newman has been his editor.
- Morten Søborg & Larry Smith are his cinematographers of choice.
- As far as actors are concerned, he frequently casts Mads Mikkelsen (5 films), Zlatko Buric (4 films), Levino Jensen (3 films) and Gordon Brown (3 films).
- Rule of Cool/Rule of Symbolism
- Show, Don't Tell: He's known for relying on the audience to infer back stories and character motivations with little, if any, concrete information or exposition.
- Signature Style:
- Most of his films center on violence, criminality and mythological themes. Balkan gangsters show up in several works.
- His soundtracks often include electronic music or punk rock, and he's also a notable pioneer of using '80s-throwback Synthwave music as a score.
- Refn's films usually feature heavy use of contrast and primary colors, with at least one scene bathed in a single color of light, usually red or blue. Sets bedecked in colored neon lights become increasingly prominent in his oeuvre over time. Refn does this because he is colorblind such that he cannot see midtones.
- Behind the scenes, Refn usually shoots in chronological order because it's easier for him to think the film through. In the Pusher films, it was doubly helpful because it also helped the non-actor supporting cast in their roles.
- Parental incest, whether explicit or implied, features in multiple works, usually mother/son.
- Silence Is Golden: His films often have a heavy emphasis on silence and long stretches often play out with no music, background noise and minimal dialogue.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: The music often contrasts to the events happening around it.
- Only God Forgives often sets karaoke lounge music against shocking violence.
- For Pusher II, Refn consulting real Danish criminals and discovered that their taste in music was very uncool. For this reason, several scenes featuring powerful criminals have soundtracks of very lame, "eurotrashy" music.
- The Stoic: His lead characters tend to be very reserved and quiet, rarely saying more than they need to or showing their emotions.
- Sunshine Noir: Many of his films feature noirish settings, graphic violence and focus on seedy antiheros, while often being set in sun-drenched surroundings.
- Tranquil Fury: His characters may be quiet and unemotional but that doesn't mean they don't get angry and aren't capable of some genuinely shocking displays of violence.
- Violence Is Disturbing: Even the violence directed at characters who had it coming can be hard to enjoy on account of Refn making it as graphic and nauseating as possible. Drive (2011), Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon are especially notorious for their violence.