Only God Forgives
(SPOILERS) Pretentiousness incarnate, and off-puttingly violent to boot. Those seem the chief accusations levelled at Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, with the added slap down that it’s slow and dull. There’s some truth to all those criticisms, although how much they become black marks or virtues is clearly in the eye of the beholder. I liked the film, but Refn definitely exposes the limitations of his thematic content by placing his emphasis in such a foregrounded and aesthetically indulgent manner.
I should emphasise that I’m not immune to decrying filmmakers over their pretensions towards pretension. I find Refn’s fellow countryman Lars von Trier insufferable, and each time I find myself persuaded to check-out-one-of-his-films –absolutely-must-see my prejudices against him are only reconfirmed. I probably qualify as a fair weather appreciator of Refn’s work, since I liked Drive for all its glossy existential minimalism but still haven’t got around to investigating earlier pictures. To an extent, it surprises me Only God Forgives has been turned on so ferociously; it’s clearly following the same path of stylistic excess as that film. Probably the key is not its more lofty mythic and surreal elements, it’s that it betrays what is essentially Drive’s very easily recognisable hero narrative. Drive is so pared down and identifiable with that, for all the eruptive violence, it is broadly palatable. Only God Forgives eschews any such comfort, and its difficulties lie here rather than through being wilfully oblique.
Refn dedicated his film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but I think its safe to say he lacks the philosophical complexity of his inspiration. Even a brief glimpse of one Jodorowsky’s films is likely to leave one with the impression the director is something of a mentalist, in the Alan Partridge rather than Simon Baker sense. That’s not something you’d assume of Refn. There’s no sense of a director guided or impelled to express himself through strong beliefs or primal, irresistible forces. The danger inherent in Only God Forgives is it may serve to expose its director as the shallow art house guy, feted above the Hollywood set but actually more at home confined to their formally unchallenging storytelling. Style over substance can be a complimentary term in Hollywood but in the art movie it represents a desecration of one’s calling.
Only God Forgives reminds me more of David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick, but even then with qualifications. There is the feeling and atmosphere of a Lynch film but no sense of an imagination of unknown depths let loose. This movie could never go anywhere off-beam; it is really quite restricted in content. Refn’s construction is very calculated in relation to meaning and symbolism, in a literal way you would never find with Lynch. In that sense it possesses something of the precision of Kubrick; those Shining-esque slow tracks down corridors, reinforced by a bassy, rumbling, soundtrack. And where Lynch’s films possess an acute sense of humour, borne as much out of extreme environments and fractured realities as unstable characters, Refn often feels like he doesn’t quite know what he’s got. He doesn’t push the performances the way Kubrick does in The Shining, but there’s no way you can watch the dinner scene, in which Ryan Gosling’s Julian and girlfriend/hooker Mai (Rhatha Phongam) are engulfed by a torrent of venom spewed forth from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), his Cruella de Vil mother with an Oedipal spin, and not conclude this is all so absurdly over the top it’s intended to be funny. Generally, however, the self-awareness humour brings might have been the missing antidote to Only God Forgives’ portentous town.
Refn has said that Drive should feel like really good cocaine and Only God Forgives like really strong acid, which may provide too much of an insight into the director’s limited agenda. The latter might be his strongest link to Jodorowsky’s approach given his ‘70s pictures were so associated with intoxication and ecstatic states to one degree or another. I’m not sure you could really label Only God Forgives an acid trip, though. It has hallucinatory sequences (hands, right; they’re everywhere, even when they aren’t there any more), dream-like elements and aspects that can only be explained in a fantastic way, but at no point does the picture become unmoored and cast adrift in a sea of the unmartialled subconscious. Refn has his hand too firmly on the tiller for this to descend into a bad trip, for all the eyeball gouging and amputation on display.
After all, the director has set out his somewhat one-note stall with the title. Once you connect that to the content there isn’t much else to say. Gosling’s underworld Bangkok drug dealer, whose front is a Muay Thai martial arts club, is pitched into a world of revenge and family purgatory when his older brother Billy, a very sick individual, meets his end after raping and murdering an under-age prostitute. Julian refrains from taking out retribution on the avenging father, to his mother’s disgust. It becomes clear that the entire clan is deeply unwholesome. Crystal has a Jocasta-like hold over her surviving, and uses overtly sexual language in his presence. Her response to the news of Billy’s actions is the ice cold “I’m sure he had his reasons”. She goads Julian over her brother’s more accomplished manhood (“How could he compete with that?”), and Julian’s reaction is to take the blows. Indeed, he ranges on Mai, who is mystified why he would let his mother treat him like that; “Because she’s my mother”.
Crystal’s call for revenge initially seems to be of the mafia-esque blood-is-thicker variety; it doesn’t matter what Billy did, justice must be served. But any scales of justice turn distinctly dicey when her instructions become far much more than eye-for-eye retribution (she wants cop Chang’s family killed too). Further still, she is willing to sacrifice Julian without pause when it comes to her life or his; her unnatural hold over her son is one of pure manipulation. Affection was only reserved for her first born. This is emphasised by Julian’s post-mortem mutilation of his mother (and the way it echoes the look-don’t-touch jollies he gets from Mai pleasuring herself). He has the younger child’s insecurity over never being as special as his elder sibling; “He killed his own father with his bare hands” because Crystal asked him to (not that she tells Change this; “He’s a very dangerous boy”). And the promise that “I can be your mother again” is the ultimate carrot on the stick to bend him to her will.
However, Only God Forgives is painted in broad strokes; there’s nothing really resonating beneath the Greek tragedy surface trappings, despite the amount Refn leaves unsaid. Gosling doesn’t have 20 lines in the whole film; Mad Max 2 minimalism without the accompanying heroic iconography. Accordingly, Gosling’s brooding impassivity doesn’t hold much impact. But that might be part of Refn’s peculiar point. Scott Thomas eats up her role and spits it out with relish, though. She’s a toxic tour de force; Crystal has a lump of burning coal where her heart should be.
Vithaya Pansringarm’s Lieutenant Chang represents Crystal’s equal and opposite. Both are bringers of unremitting judgement. He roams Bangkok with the smooth precision of a Zen Judge Dredd, dispensing his own exclusive brand of justice based on particularly inimitable reasoning (“He’s not the one” he deduces as soon as he sets eyes on Julian, discounting him from murdering Choi). Dismemberment, torture, impalation; all are acceptable and appropriate depending upon the culpability of the subject. And then there are some he lets off, perhaps for sentimental reasons (a hit man looking after his crippled son is allowed to live, but its unclear if this is because Chang will be taking a father from his son, or because he loves his boy).
While Chang operates as a supernatural force, haunting the dreams of Julian (he might even be a figment of his imagination, such is the acid trip reflex here) and flourishing a sword of righteousness from no visible place on his back, and may well be believe himself to be an instrument of divine retribution, even divine himself, he does not possess the tools to forgive. Only to arbitrate. He is also a dab hand, and foot, at Thai boxing (during a fight that leaves Julian looking not unlike Nic Cage at the end of Wild at Heart, Julian can’t even connect) and a keen karaoke enthusiast (a singing detective). These musical interludes, sometimes overlaid with Cliff Martinez’ ominous rumbling rather than Pansringarms’ tones, are the closest we come to the warped vibe of Lynch; Chang’s supernatural precognition of danger is much more familiar.
It has to be said, with all these aspirations to content, depth and meaning, Refn is at his most effective when he is creating the purely visceral or adrenalised. A machine gun massacre leads to Change chasing an assassin on foot and taking him out with a sizzling frying pan. The expertly choreographed fight between Chang and Julian (“He’s not much of a fighter”), accompanied by a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in TRON Legacy. The uncertainty over what Julian will do when it comes to killing Chang’s family. There is some deeply unpleasant violence on display, mostly during the extended torture of the man who order the hit, but it would be a mistake to assume this is one long inferno of brutality. It’s more that the subject matter is tonally harsh and unforgiving.
So yes, Refn’s pretentious side is Only God Forgives’ least-most quality. It serves to highlight the limitations of its director’s ideas and content, right down to the indeterminate final sequence. But like Drive, he packages his material in visually and aurally seductive ambiance. The charge of lethargic pace isn’t one I can really recognise; in contrast, the opportunity to soaking up the atmosphere of this neon-charged, primary colour, world of bold shadows and dissecting lines is the picture’s greatest strength. And, in this instance at least, the limited nature of what is behind it isn’t a deal breaker. I can forgive Refn his indulgence and ostentatiousness, although I can’t speak for God.