An exploration of an epic myth.
Like David Lynch, there is a thematic tipping point in the filmography of Nicolas Winding Refn, a movie in which the director discovered an overarching concept that he would explore from alternative angles over the course of several films. For Lynch, that point was the original Twin Peaks series, and the concept was one of duality, specifically duality of consciousness within the same persona, which he has since explored in Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and presently in the third season of Twin Peaks. For Refn, this point is the 2009 film Valhalla Rising, and the concept is one of transformation. All three of his films that follow Valhalla Rising – Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon – deal with central characters in the process of changing themselves, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, regardless with mixed results. But speaking of Valhalla Rising, Drive, and Only God Forgives (all made within a four-year period), there’s another, more confounding and intriguing connection, according to Refn himself: “One-Eye,” “the Driver,” and “Lieutenant Chang” are iterations of the same character, not the same type of character, but the same actual character, one the director describes as “a mythological creature that has a mysterious past but cannot relate to reality because he’s too heightened, and he’s pure fetish.”1 Further elaborating, Refn says, “One-Eye, Driver and this guy, the Unnameable [Chang] … are very much rooted in fairy-tale mythology, of people with supernatural powers. Again, part of my, I guess, intense fetish of masculinity.”2
This definition positions these men as destined for more than mere manhood, it establishes them as men who are isolated from the world and indeed reality because of their shared destiny, which is a kind of long-gestating chrysalis transforming them into the heroes they are meant to be. For One-Eye, silent figure at the center of Valhalla Rising, the supernatural power Refn refers to is precognition, or the ability to see the future; for the Driver, eponymous protagonist of Drive, it is invulnerability or superhuman resilience; and for Lieutenant Chang, the “God” of whom the title Only God Forgives refers, it is a power so complete and fully-realized that it borders upon omnipotence. In each film, these superpowers are used not for the betterment of he who wields them, rather for protecting or avenging innocents. One-Eye sacrifices himself for The Boy; the Driver crashes his life to help Irene and her son; and Chang acts as judge, jury, and when needed as executioner in his sphere of existence, ensuring the wicked keep away from the innocent, or failing that, using them as an example for others who would be tempted to emulate their behavior. By exploring these men as individuals, how they relate and how they differ, we reveal how they fit together into a greater mythological narrative of heroism, defeat, redemption, and the meaning, worth, and consequences of superiority.
To begin with, there are several surface similarities shared by these characters, namely that all are either mute or speak as little as possible, all have mysterious and unexplored pasts, almost like they weren’t born of women but rather conjured into existence by some greater power, all move through life trying (but failing) to avoid emotional attachment, which they perceive as worse than a weakness, instead a fatal flaw, and – most importantly – all are fetishistic manifestations of masculinity, meaning they’re powerful, violent, physical over verbal, and caught between states of being that are both civilized and primal. At the same time, though, these men are also noble, protective, loyal, disciplined, and selfless. They are heroes. Unconventional ones, to be sure, but so too are their worlds unconventional. We get the heroes and villains we deserve, never any more, never any less.
Despite these similarities, though, each man represents a distinct phase of their communal evolution, One-Eye the discovery or becoming phase, the Driver the mastery phase, and Chang the fulfillment phase. Their hero’s journey is one of death and rebirth, shedding skin as one becomes the other, each time emerging into a world that has changed but not to pace with them, leaving them forever outside the realm of humanity, lonely gods who protect at their own peril.
One-Eye begins his journey – their journey – as a lowly thrall, or slave, owned by a Norwegian chieftain who uses the man’s physical prowess, itself qualifying as superhuman, to fight other thralls to the death for sport. One-Eye at film’s start is less than a man, he is a wild animal never let off his leash, he is a tool of man, a domesticated beast. As he progresses through his phase of the larger journey, aided by his precognitions, One-Eye acquires his freedom, survives overwhelming adversity at every turn, discovers his humanity, and ultimately dies a hero, sacrificing himself for the sake of The Boy, who helped to spur his transformative exodus. One-Eye’s death, though, is as mentioned more of a rebirth, it is his spirit shedding what it was born as in favor of what it and he will become in his next incarnation, namely a more-formed hero, one already aware of himself. This is essentially how I believe Refn connects the characters in a narrative of logic (if even he does), as reincarnations of the same soul. Speaking somewhat to this idea, Refn says of One-Eye, “He’s essentially a god, but a god in sense of what the others make of him. He has powers, but doesn’t know why he can see the future. He doesn’t realize why, until he participates in a hallucinogenic journey, in which he becomes active.” 3
“A god in sense of what the others make of him” would seem to tell us that the character isn’t immortal as he is spiritually singular, a being of power in a powerless world. He is superior, but in a way that is to be feared, not celebrated, and feared power is almost always worshipped in the history of man, it is something we deify to avoid being crushed by it. Not all gods want to be worshipped, though, and One-Eye’s horrific background, what we see of it, at least, has left him understandably distrustful of all men. But this is how he “becomes active,” by setting aside his distrust, by recognizing his uniquity and using it to save another, The Boy, thus transforming himself, through death, into a willing hero. A hero named The Driver.
“He’s the man we all aspire to be, but he wasn’t meant to live in the real world, he’s too noble, too innocent. In the old days, a knight would put a sword between themselves and a woman. And in Los Angeles, a man like this exists.”4 This is one of the ways Refn describes the Driver, and it is a fitting image for this phase of the character’s evolution. The Driver is a hero at his film’s outset, he is aware of his particular abilities and uses them to work as a stuntman and getaway driver, both of which are inherently dangerous professions. He is a reluctant hero to be sure, guarded and cautious, but reluctance is a chivalrous quality, the best knights are never boisterous, they are respectful of the power they wield and unleash it only to protect or defend.
The Driver might not be able to see the future like One-Eye could, but that’s because he’s better prepared to handle the present. If Valhalla Rising is about discovery, Drive is about mastery, it is the sequel to the origin story in which our hero, now aware, or as Refn described it, “active,” becomes one with his powers and his persona, he accepts himself and starts towards becoming his best version, which is the destiny of every hero. Irene is the impetus of this. The allure of her innocence and its ability to break through the Driver’s self-imposed isolation and engage him emotionally, like The Boy did One-Eye, starts him becoming better, yet again through sacrifice. The Driver agrees to help Standard rob the pawn shop not for the man’s sake but for the man’s family’s, Irene and her son. And when the robbery goes horribly wrong, resulting in Standard’s death and the Driver wanted by the mob for stealing their money, instead of speeding off into the sunset like most criminals would, instead of saving himself, he sticks around to finish things, knowing if he goes then the next name on his enemies’ list is Irene’s. Once again through a fetishistic frenzy of violence the Driver forces another evolution of his character, one in which his spirit masters its being and the two halves – man and mythical hero – forge into one. The Driver solves his problem, he saves Irene, and he survives. For how long is left intentionally vague, but the last we see him he is alive, and he is changed from the man we first encountered, he is now able to allow himself connection, he has proven to himself he can keep safe the ones he loves. Thus, when he is reincarnated next, as Lieutenant Chang, he is a vengeful shepherd to a flock of citizenry, a silent but present god who can forgive, though not without penance.
Chang is the most static of the character phases, he remains the same figure from start to finish because he is actualized, he is the fulfilled potential his spirit has been pursuing through its incarnations. This makes him, to those who live in his shadow, a kind of god “in the sense that God in the Old Testament is saying ‘I can be cruel, you have to fear me’ as ‘I can be kind, you have to love me.’”5 He is the hero his wards deserve, one who is brutal but fair, and one who views the world as simply as he governs it. As Refn says, “Chang’s way of life is ‘you are the consequences of your actions and nothing ever goes unpunished.’”5 This is what his spirit has learned across the lifetimes, that it isn’t who you are that matters as much as it is what you do with who you are. Life is a series of consequences, and the only difference, at the end of the day, between heroes and villains is intention, will. This spirit has chosen, at times against its stronger notions, to be a hero, to give of himself for others, to protect, but in a world like the one portrayed in Only God Forgives (and Valhalla Rising and Drive), being a hero requires mercilessness, it means destroying evil, be that evil the heart of a man or just his hands, and it also means living with the ramifications of said mercilessness. In the other two films, these ramifications are an end to or abrupt shift in life; in Only God Forgives, they are the preservation of life as-is and security against those who would threaten this.
Therefore, if One-Eye is escaping and overcoming his past, and the Driver is confronting and accepting his present, then Chang is shaping the future, he is creating order by action, he is imposing a moral system of which he is the central figure, he is, in essence, creating or at least allowing created a religion around himself. He is his superpower now, everything he does, every move he makes, every action he takes, it is all perfect, effortless, and effective. Emotionally, too, he is his most-evolved. There is love in Chang’s life, or at least a wife, and there is passion, as his affinity for karaoke demonstrates. He is no longer a soul in isolation, he is a known figure, one who proudly walks the streets and commands respect everywhere he goes. These are normal pleasures the Driver wouldn’t allow himself and One-Eye couldn’t conceive of, they are the result of a perfect harmony of spirit and being, a singular, evolved persona who has found the balance for which he’s spent millennia searching. Which is why Chang is also the only incarnation of the character who not only survives unquestionably, he is never even injured. Chang is untouchable, something he has earned from the brutality One-Eye endured then the Driver wrestled under control.
Looking then at the overall evolution, our hero begins as a beast, a product not of his own will but the actions of others, a thing made, not born. Through an injection of innocence into his life, The Boy, and the aid of his own precognitive powers, he escapes captivity and learns to walk upright, as it were, in the process becoming a self-sacrificing hero. Next born he is a being comfortable if cautious with his exceptionalism, he knows that he is a weapon, capable of being used for good or evil, and struggles to stay on the right side of that line. Having experienced and benefitted from a connection in his previous incarnation, he is more susceptible to the world of man and those who inhabit it, and his interactions with Irene, like any exercise, strengthen his emotional muscles, in turn preparing him for the feat to come: mastering his powers to protect the innocent, learning to control the beast who still lurks inside and turn all his rage into a force for good. He does this. He controls himself, wields himself responsibly, and though injured, perhaps mortally, he spares innocence further pain and is rewarded himself with the final phase of his evolution: omnipotence. Here, at the pinnacle of his potential, he is no longer a leaf in the winds of the world, he is the wind, he is the action and the reaction, the end-all be-all, the Alpha and the Omega of morality, of justice, a son of no one who becomes a father to all.
But what if Chang isn’t the character’s final evolution?
As recently as 2013, Refn spoke about the idea of revisiting this character to complete his arc. This is where things get really weird, even for this director: “I had this idea of Mads Mikklesen to go back to the origins of this character. But make the movie in Tokyo…about the future.”6
Now, granted, “about the future” doesn’t mean the same thing as “set in the future,” but knowing that Refn considers Valhalla Rising a sci-fi film with narrative and thematic parallels to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it wouldn’t be out of the clear blue to find ourselves watching a fourth film in this series in which One-Eye or perhaps another incarnation that resembles One-Eye, bringing the character full circle, finds himself leaving Tokyo on a journey through space and time to accomplish the next logical phase of his heroic evolution: omniscience, true God status. The transformation here could be the man into myth, a star-child all Refn’s own, and a final rebirth that starts the cycle over again, infinity in action.
Regardless of whether or not Refn returns to the character, knowing One-Eye, the Driver, and Lieutenant Chang are tied to one other tells an even larger, more fascinating story than their individual films, a story that takes a thousand years to unfold, a spiritual epic akin to that of Jesus, of Mohammad, of the Buddha, but tied to the ways of the world unlike any of those, a narrative of birth through cruelty, ascension through violence, and redemption through death.