When Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives premiered at Cannes in May, there was a chorus of booing followed by pans. Having seen the film and thinking about what critics and audiences were expecting from it, I can see why. But I also ravenously luxuriated in it, my eyes infatuated with its languid rhythm and saturated images, my ears adoring its ambient textures and stretched silences. Greased with Cliff Martinez’s silky synth score, it’s a film in which one alertly bathes as it massages the senses. In alignment with its strained Oedipal themes, where a muted son has to sever himself from a crassly verbose mother, the fleshy warm glow is womb-like.
Two years earlier, the pair’s first collaboration Drive won Refn a directing prize at Cannes. Though not a hit, it was well on its way to becoming a cult film. But the less-than-welcoming reception for the follow-up was imminent. Drive has its fair share of intelligent cinephile detractors (Quentin Tarantino said of it, “Nice try”) just as it had disappointed mainstream audience members not expecting the slow-burn urban fairy tale when the trailer (apparently) promised a Fast and Furious-tempered action vehicle. Gosling, meanwhile, has been caught in a handsome stoicism that is increasingly grating: looking at you quietly, talking gently with the ghost of a smile, and then punching people in the teeth (after Drive, think of Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines). Only God Forgives feeds into this tiresome Gosling type. His character, Julian, runs a boxing club in Thailand that fronts for a drug business controlled by his family, including older and more assured brother Billy (Tom Burke) and mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Julian wordlessly stares while his mouth lingers in shadows. Calm, silent, gazing, beautiful, chaste–this is very much like the Driver relocated to Thailand.
Refn’s new film isn’t as accessible as his previous one. With Drive, audiences could be fascinated and puzzled with the enigmatic Driver, but in ways relate — or at least be comfortable with — the familiar noir types in Hossein Amini’s screenplay like Carey Mulligan’s single mom, Albert Brooks’ delightful and lethal gangster Bernie Rose, Bryan Cranston’s crippled mechanic, Oscar Isaac’s ex-con struggling to go straight, and even Ron Perlman’s despicable and vulgar “Fine Ass Pussymobile” bully. The beautiful contemporary synth-pop soundtrack plugs into the story’s romanticism as it flirts with an attractive filmic iconography preceding it, of Western heroes like Shane, Kenneth Anger’s leather/cars/pop fetish fest Scorpio Rising, Melville’s Le Samourai, and the glitzy sheen of ’80s B-movies.
All that made Drive a richer experience, as Refn, working on assignment, was like an alien making the familiar L.A. terrain seem startlingly new. It was a fairy tale and super-hero movie, and its off-beat pathological longing left the ultraviolence (which only figures into the picture at about the 45-minute mark) as a problematic afterthought. The Driver’s protective vengeance might have been seen as sleek noir posturing and flexing, but I felt that this character resembled the titular character (Ryan O’Neal) from Walter Hill’s The Driver or one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s or Michael Mann’s criminal loners (James Caan in Thief, Robert De Niro in Heat) less than Mann’s scoptophiliac killer Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter. That sense of pathology made the picture feel more fantastic and twisted in its solipsism, in addition to being more tragic. Gosling’s bouts of rage stemmed more from a frustrated–and even psychopathic–sense of inadequacy and apart-ness than heroism. The “victory” over Bernie and the gangsters at the conclusion felt like a beautiful delusion and fantasy more than cathartic triumph. Or maybe it was both at once, which makes Drive more and more interesting to me, as if I’m losing my mind while watching it.
In Only God Forgives, the sense of the hero’s real-world inadequacy is addressed. The passively observational and silent Julian is in the shadow of his brother, a man with aggressive eyes with specific demands to satiate his fetishes. Looking through a window into a room of prostitutes (all lounging on a set that feels like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey), Billy says to the manager, with chilling affectless speech, “Are those women? I want to fuck a girl. I want to fuck a 14-year-old girl.” Violently making his way to another bordello, Billy rapes and murders a teen prostitute who happens to be the pimp’s daughter. The investigating police lieutenant, Chang, known as “the Angel of Death” (Vithaya Pansringarm, who exudes a magnificent presence), allows the father to do whatever he wants to the placid and almost catatonic Billy–before having his own arm sliced off by Lt. Chang as punishment for selling off his daughter. We see the after effects of a terrible bludgeoning, Billy’s cranium opened up and spilling curdled brain matter.
When Julian hesitates to avenge the murder because of the context (“I’m sure he had his reasons,” he says of the pimp father), mother Crystal shames and humiliates him. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she says when Julian tries to explain things. A real man would have brought her the head of Billy’s murderer on a plate. At a dinner, she points out to Julian’s date Mai (Ratha Phongam), a prostitute who dances at a club Julian frequents, how Julian (whose name is feminine) always envied Billy for, among other things, the elder brother’s superior penis. After the prostitute’s father has been killed by some of Crystal’s hired thugs, Lt. Chang looks at Julian and judges he had nothing to do with it (“He’s not the one”)–not because of evidence, but because, so it seems, he intuits that Julian doesn’t have it in him to carry out vengeance the way men like Billy and Chang do.
It’s a darker avenue of fantasy where what’s dream and what’s real tumble together with uncertainty. The film’s shady and maze-like interiors reminded me of David Lynch’s Red Room from his Twin Peaks universe, particularly as used during the prequel film Fire Walk With Me and the television finale, where characters are lost between real and unreal, waking and dream, good and evil, White Lodge and Black. Characters speak in riddles, their dialogue recorded backward and played forward. Fire Walk With Me was also booed at Cannes, but it demands viewers adjust to its wavelength. Alongside its Laura Palmer storyline of incest and murder was the mystery of the Red Room, the other-world where garmonbozia (pain and suffering) is dished out through bargains between supernatural characters. Lynch’s abstract methods are in sync with what I think Refn is doing with Julian, who is wandering through the landscape of the film as through the quandary of his mind. Only God Forgives has other Lynchian motifs like singers on stages (with karaoke instead of lip-syncing) and a terrifically rich sound design of saturated noise and ocean-deep silences that drown everything, much like what we hear in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and INLAND EMPIRE (or Kubrick’s The Shining). As with Lynch’s universe, I don’t think the bell-ringing of movie references of Refn function as a base so much as another texture, surrounding characters who drift tonally through a labyrinth of artifice and longing.
The picture is problematic because of its sexuality. But I don’t think Refn wants to do anything progressive so much as raw and ecstatic, and that means delving into the insecurities of his male protagonists (or himself as a filmmaker) and projecting them onto everything we see. Like with Drive, Gosling’s strong-silent-type hero is chaste but the ubiquitous sexuality of Only God Forgives‘ lurid clubs and bordellos, in addition to the profane and all-too-direct dialogue of Crystal and Billy (Crystal memorably calls Mai a “cum-dumpster”), makes that chastity all the more alienating for the protagonist. While watching Mai dance, Julian’s gaze becomes a fantasy where he’s tied to a chair as she masturbates in front of him, her imagined climax coinciding with an image of his dismemberment, as a sword comes from the darkness and down on his outstretched arms. Speech, sex, and violence swirl in a tainted soup for Julian (and Refn), and stuck in the confines of his mind and gaze, he’s unable to do what he sees around him, what others can do so easily. The cutting in the scene, where her groin shifts to his, and the fantasy doubles for cabaret performance, indicates how locked up Julian is within himself. We watch this world that Julian seemingly is apart from and wonder if he’s somehow the inventor of what we’re seeing.
That’s how Only God Forgives functions in the vein of a violent Asian-influenced revenge fantasy. Whereas Drive gave audiences the satisfaction of its B-movie set-up with the hateful evil-doers foiled and (in the case of that infamous elevator, literally) stamped out, Refn refuses such a release here, as the hero’s victory and transformation is his own immolation. Only God Forgives indulges in the grotesque with its visceral ultraviolence, for example a character’s rib cage bursting through a wound after he’s been sliced open. But the violence is spread out between luxuriously moody sequences of staring and wonder. It’s also off-screen most of the time. Refn often denies us seeing the penetration of bludgeoning, stabbing, and shooting. And as the story addresses Julian’s gendered inadequacies of what being a “real man” is supposed to mean, Refn addresses how we intake violence as viewers. Before a grueling session of violence commences in a crowded club, Lt. Chang says, “Girls, keep your eyes closed. Men, take a good look.” Chang then gets all Duke of Cornwall on a poor chap’s eyeballs before going a little Mr. Blonde on the ears.
Maybe it’s that I’m not a real man, but my eyes were admittedly not open for the whole proceeding. “You can’t see what is good for you,” Chang says as his point goes into the vile jelly of the eyeball. I don’t know if Refn wants us to look at everything (I have the same problem with the elevator boot-stomp in Drive, where I think the audience’s double is the horrified Carey Mulligan; and then there are those intestines from Valhalla Rising), but there definitely is a masculine code in Only God Forgives which causes anxiety for Julian, and then it becomes our anxiety. I have my problems with Refn’s violence as I do with Tarantino’s gleeful “movie violence” (as opposed to Scorsese’s philosophy of violence, where he wants you to be horrified and look away), but at least it’s not blindly cathartic. It’s more like an endurance test.
Is Only God Forgives punishment? Not to be at all in agreement with its detractors, but it’s a sincere question as to whatever Refn’s motives are. The blonde haired and blue-eyed Hollywood hero isn’t the one doing the tolling out in this picture; it’s this Asian “Angel of Death,” whose katana sword, though pulled from behind his back, supernaturally materializes from nowhere. Revenge violence is fantasy that locks us in a spellbound gaze much like Julian’s sexual fantasy with Mai, during which eyes looking directly at us before he’s untied–and dismembered in this separate filmic/fantastical plane. Chang may be a corrupt police lieutenant, but he’s a warm family man who reads to his daughter at bedtime, and his crafty violence is inflicted on pimps or thugs who’ve conspired against him and fellow officers. Julian and his family are drug dealers and foreign invaders–much like Refn’s film is invading Thailand–a Danish director and American star leading a crew of mostly Thai employees. Crystal refers to the natives as “yellow niggers” and doesn’t have time for their property or perspectives. The confrontation of familial revenge is the song we’re expecting, but Refn changes the lyrics and point-of-view.
Refn’s pictures of lethal silent observers provoke us to wonder about perspective (people have told me that re-watching Drive while thinking that the Driver is a delusional psychopath changed their opinion of the film); the director could be “having a wank” (a phrase people love to use when describing indulgent filmmakers, I guess) with his web of allusions, his films a kind of midnight-movie karaoke. But the karaoke displayed in Only God Forgives points to a sense of how Refn’s appropriations are reverent, even strangely religious. Instead of good-time off-key humor, the karaoke crowd — mostly of policemen watching Chang at the mic — stares and listens attentively as if during a ritual. The artifice is part of the design. Refn’s film in tone, movement, and design feels very Kubrickian, and with the deep reds against chilly blues I was particularly reminded of Eyes Wide Shut (whose principal lighting cameraman, Larry Smith, is Only God Forgives‘ cinematographer), another film set on the blurry boundaries of dream and waking, artifice and myth, where the primal and haunting sounds of the Somerton orgy are undercut when we see how Nick Nightingale’s organ is hooked up to an amplifier. That film, with its scenario of a man set on revenge fucking with strangers as retaliation against a spouse who’s revealed her fantasies of infidelity, also, like Only God Forgives, denies the protagonist–and audience–the expectant orgasm.
From what I’ve read, the negative reviews about Only God Forgives are neglectful of its title which denotes something religious. Here, Refn continues to think about transformation: we see the metamorphosis with criminal-artist Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) in Bronson, the silent one-eyed viking (Madds Mikkelsen) — who gives himself up for sacrifice to American natives (and may be the god Odin) — in Valhalla Rising, and the quiet Driver who becomes a violent action-hero savior, dying and resurrecting with Drive‘s final moments, the College song reminding us that he’s become a “real human being and a real hero.” With its cavernous hallways and crimson dream-like environs, Only God Forgives is like its own temple or church, the plot secondary to a ritual’s solemn function. Gorgeously rendered, its movements and atmosphere are wholly engrossing. The implication is that Julian, like Bronson, One-Eye, and the Driver–in his failure as a hero–becomes a “god,” if only in his own head, or the hermetical universe of the film.
The boxing club where Julian works is replete with its own gods and icons, the statues and pictures of the fighters from the past. Julian and Billy groom adolescents for the ring, and we could see this as a factory where aggression is manufactured. But the boy led to the ring by Julian–which feels like a sacrificial altar–catches the riotous crowd off-guard when he kneels and prays before his fight. As he does with much of the film’s violence, Refn declines showing us a victorious blow and instead cuts backstage afterward. His emphasis is on the ritualistic element, and the young fighter’s meditative sensibility is linked to his trainer, the watchful Julian, so different from the aggressive automaton Billy.
Chang has a sense of sage conscientiousness distinct from other characters. He leaves the stations of the cross in his wake, but what of mercy (the “forgiveness” of the title)? Led to the hideout of a poor man who was hired by Crystal to kill him, he slices open the ratting informant but, presumably, lets the other man live. This other man tells Chang that he’s ready to face the consequences but pleads “spare my son,” a handicapped child whose eyes stare at us into the camera and refuse to look away from the carnage. The man accepts responsibility and his concerns are unselfish.
This marvelous and unforgettable sequence, with that child’s inscrutable and unflinching face looking at us/Chang, reminded me again of where I was coming from with this pulp revenge story. Julian’s family is representative of a privileged class. Crystal verbally abuses workers at the luxurious hotel in which she stays. Billy takes advantage of poor working girls and their families, so poor they are compelled to sell off their daughters. Chang, our presumed antagonist, is fighting on behalf of the proletariat. He’s God’s messenger bringing justice and retribution, ascending to the 42nd floor to confront the nefarious and terrible Kali-Ma mother Crystal.
Julian is a movie hero who was born into the house of villains, and Only God Forgives rather unsubtly delves into his struggle to return to–or be severed from–the womb. It might sound, in our post-Freudian time of academic flippancy, a little (or a lot) pretentious, but I think Only God Forgives works because it hits some uncomfortable primal cords, in its solipsistic and masculine cell, relating to Refn’s sense of cinema that ring true. Refn himself says, “The idea was to make a movie that takes place in the vagina and I wondered what that would look like. Man’s fear of sexuality is the basis of all horror from the male perspective.” I think there’s something cheeky about his words, but it’s also sincere. The draped red confines of the film’s clubs have a corporeal feeling, and Julian’s fascination or desire for sex is not procreative but precocious. His fetish is to see hands, his instruments of violence, in orifices (his first violent assault in a club has him slapping–not punching–two male patrons and dragging one of them through a hallway by the mouth). In a film that confuses reality for dream, it’s possible that what we hear Crystal say is in his self-loathing and sexually anxious imagination (such as that colorful vaginal euphemism “cum dumpster”). Scott Thomas leaves an incredible impression as Crystal, and seeing how she seems to be existing on an alternate plane of existence from the rest of the film’s characters, the performance is a work of art not out of line with what Julian may have concocted in his imagination–though she governs his movements, even if he knows they’re irrational.
She is the terrible mother who will eventually beg Julian to protect her, who was told by doctors to “terminate” the pregnancy she had with him, and who voices the hidden secret of what he’s done with his bare hands to his father. Having given birth to him she now admits that she’ll never understand him and never will. She’s a woman who might as well be conversing with herself and naming all of the son’s sexual insecurities. Julian really wants to get back inside of her (yeah…he does), as if to do everything over or will himself out of existence.
His confrontation with Chang at the boxing club is an anticlimax of atonement (and one of the reasons audiences who dug Drive and Tarantino’s revenge movies will be disappointed with Refn here). He’s not a worthy adversary for Chang, but his will to receive punishment, as someone who doesn’t feel he deserves to live, is what’s remarkable. The film’s structure, as sacrament more than plot-driven narrative, is reminiscent of Raging Bull, also about a self-destructive man who takes punches like he doesn’t want to live. Redemption in that film wasn’t verbal or narrative, but came with the audience seeing a man who was the worst kind of sinner. “That’s entertainment!” becomes a kind of Holy Rite.
The instinct in revenge is the same for revenge-movie-going: self-satisfaction. Refn’s film is a self-flagellating exercise where we’re meant to contemplate otherness, be it races, reasons, or perspectives. The opening credits refuse to translate themselves from Thai to English for us. Words flow like money from Crystal’s mouth and are used to control others, along with aggression. Julian’s most verbal moment is when he walks on the streets with Mai after introducing her to his mother. She says that she doesn’t want to keep the dress he bought her and he wrathfully tells her to take it off immediately. But silence is cinema for Refn, and the ritual of solitary gazing, like Chang and the handicapped child looking at each other, or like Julian looking at another child in the film, whom he has been instructed to kill, shifts perspectives and makes people more receptive–a thought coinciding with the symbolic castration/silencing (the reality of which is uncertain) preceding the picture’s concluding karaoke moment of a spellbound audience listening to the Angel of Death.