Primal Crime: Visions of the Law and Its Transgression in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cinema

Abstract

In this paper I consider contemporary expressions of what Freud called the primal crime and collapse of paternal law through an exploration of the cinema of the Danish-American Director Nicolas Winding Refn. Introducing the paper I outline Freud’s theory of the law, crime, and civilization, where social order and its transgression become caught in an endless cycle, before moving on to explore Winding Refn’s cinema. Following this work, where I centrally show how Freud founds the law upon structures of the family and criminality, I consider Winding Refn’s early Danish films, specifically the Pusher trilogy and Bleeder, in order to show how he imagines the collapse of law and order into crime and violence through stories of the ruined family. Moving on, I explore the consequences of this situation through reference to Winding Refn’s middle period films, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, where first crime completely dominates the law, and second this situation conjures the idea of escape from the dystopia of violence and crime into some other utopian space. Finally, I explore Winding Refn’s later works, Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon. In these films Winding Refn imagines the ruins of the family and the oedipal law of the father who is no longer on the scene and tells the story of the desperate orphaned child who grows up without the socio-symbolic structures in place in tell them how to live. At this point Winding Refn’s crime system is more or less entirely normalised with the result that it generates the idea of utopian possibility in order to imagine potential escape from the nihilistic horror of an asocial system where exchange is everything.

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Filmography

  1. 1.

    Pusher, (1996), Nicolas Winding Refn, In2film.

  2. 2.

    Bleeder, (1999), Nicolas Winding Refn, Metrodome.

  3. 3.

    Fear X, (2003), Nicolas Winding Refn, Matrix.

  4. 4.

    Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004), Nicolas Winding Refn, Magnolia.

  5. 5.

    Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005), Nicolas Winding Refn, Magnolia.

  6. 6.

    Bronson, (2008), Nicolas Winding Refn, E1 Films.

  7. 7.

    Valhalla Rising, (2009), Nicolas Winding Refn, Momentum.

  8. 8.

    Drive, (2011), Nicolas Winding Refn, Icon.

  9. 9.

    Only God Forgives, (2013), Nicolas Winding Refn, Icon.

  10. 10.

    The Neon Demon, (2016), Nicolas Winding Refn, Icon.

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Correspondence to Mark Featherstone.

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Featherstone, M. Primal Crime: Visions of the Law and Its Transgression in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cinema. Int J Semiot Law 34, 49–67 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-019-09632-5

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Keywords

  • Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Cinema
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Law
  • Crime
  • Dystopia
  • Utopia