Nicolas Winding Refn, the operatic poet of violence who birthed “Drive” and “Bronson”, released “Only God Forgives” first at Cannes to boos and wide dismissal. The Guardian in the UK, the same paper that broke the Edward Snowden leaks case, really liked it. The critics here in the U.S. have written it off in disgust, calling it emotionally empty, sophomoric, nihilistic and, to deny it any artistic credit, derivative of David Lynch. So now we know that these critics are fundamentally film-smart, decent and moral people — opposed to ultra violence and self indulgence. But what about the movie?
Well it concerns the gridlocked situation of Julian (a mute Ryan Gosling), who comes from a family of drug dealing, teenage-girl raping sociopaths who hustle the Bangkok underworld. The cover for their operations is a fighting gym. Events are set in motion when Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm ), a police officer who doesn’t have to wear his uniform, comes to collect bodies and shriveled souls with the sword he keeps hidden behind his back. The form of justice he doles out to the abysmal and sometimes hilarious losers in this movie is not unlike the tracking done by Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” When he’s done with the day’s dirty work, he lets off steam by singing karaoke, a melancholic spectacle that attracts an audience only of DoDo head cops.
What’s more to write about is the style. The history of Western or Samurai movies, as Quintin Tarantino can tell you better than I, is chocked full of movies playful or elegant (Refn’s preference) that’s stock and trade is its insane levels of violence. “Only God Forgives” steps into that tradition, but thankfully feels like a foreign film. The cast has actors American, Chinese, world weary local faces, Indian, Scottish, and English (the classy Brit Kristin Scott Thomas plays a Kardashian-style American princess from hell). The film is of deep European patience and seriousness, seen in the dreamy-flashback editing and measured composition of the shots. One of my favorite scenes was watching Chang train in nature and against a modern skyscraper horizon at twilight.
Refn completes a strange canvas that is global, not confined to one country or voice. For example, Refn the Dane has found his Robert DeNiro (Gosling) and placed him not in the mean streets of New York or Denmark, but in China. That they have no place there makes this picture better and more visually odd and interesting. The film in general has a found a home nowhere.
His style is not totally unlike Harmony Korine’s (who’s “Spring Breaker’s” met with mixed reviews and also has an evocative score by Cliff Martinez). Refn and Korine see each scene as a chance to make an impact, they find beauty in every frame, enjoying the journey to wherever it is they are going. I noted that this approach felt “Eastern” somehow when I watched “Spring Breakers.” Refn has gone straight to China with it.
Roger Ebert wisely noted when watching Refn’s “Drive” that “its emotions may be hidden, but they run deep.” The same is true here. Watching “Only God Forgives” I got the impression that Refn knows well the violence this grotesque American family wreaks on the Bangkok underworld has bought the family’s place in hell. In this universe, to be a confused and mildly sympathetic non-hero like Gosling’s Julian is an even bigger sin, because he turns out to be nothing at all, unable to extract himself from his mother’s dark legacy, but unable to carry out her demands either. To me there was a message to the violence, an undercurrent of some unsettling wisdom that Refn attaches himself to.
The film has a visceral beat, a primal thump that honors Werner Herzog’s belief that cinema is for the illiterate (so any Biblical, Freudian or Shakespearean references critics hold to the movie, I believe are accidental or not important). I personally watch movies with a pretty deep aversion to violence. Like in dealing with life, violence is the easy answer. So I find myself soul searching on why the way Quentin Tarantino handles violence in “Django Unchained” left me indifferent and confused, while Refn’s use of startling violence works more for me. Whereas Tarantino makes the violence a fun zany ride, Refn’s somber and idiosyncratic tone seems more appropriate and more unified and successful as a work of art, it keeps this kind of stuff in its own natural underworld. So the film has a satisfying consistency and occupies its own place in an imaginative space (with a nod to Lynch for the karaoke idea, sure).
No one has made violence a more ethereal, ritualized thing than Refn. I find myself unable to forget one torture sequence that takes place in a room full of beautiful women, also at an otherworldly karaoke bar. They are told to close their eyes for this. And they keep them closed the whole grueling time. Grace (these lovelies) and Brutality (the men) exist in the same frame for long minutes, while on our television sets men in nice suits tell us about the humans we are killing throughout the Middle East in a language designed to desensitize us and make us more comfortable with violence. I’ll take Refn’s worldview.
This is an unpredictable movie, and unique. I mention The Guardian liking it along with their coverage of the Snowden case to tease out (if not confirm) a suspicion I have within myself that it’s not just the violence and pretentiousness against which critics are reacting. Movies have been violent since they gave a man a camera. I also fear they are intellectually putting things into a lazy politically correct and prudish box that keeps them from recognizing a unique and worthy work when they see it. Not many movies like this one exist, so we should ostracize it? Why should everything look the same in the cinema? Why should journalists attack a Guardian reporter who was doing his job by revealing a surveillance story pertinent to the private rights of US citizens? When things start to look the same and people stop asking questions, that’s when I get worried. Not when the characters in a movie like this blow and chop each other to bits.
The absurd humor in “Only God Forgives” worked its peculiar magic on me as well. Consider a scene where our pathetic hero Julian decides he’s going to make a serious girlfriend out of the prostitute he’s been seeing (and can’t make love to). He presents her with a dress and says, with the tact of Norman Bates, “I’d like you to meet my mother.” At dinner mom imperiously asks the lucky lady how many cocks she has fit into her “cum dumpster.” Gosling, the great Refn team player, soberly watches this nonsense take place. Surely Julian knew this was going to happen. Yet he set the date anyway. What an odd movie. The dark, family-rooted humor Hitchcock would surely recognize.
Or, again, these scenes when the compelling Vithaya Pansringarm (Chang) is singing his karaoke songs. He’s holding court to a roomful of cops. It’s not an ecstatic moment like you would get in a Lynch film; these people do not have access to the ecstatic. The supreme warrior Chang would probably like a better reward than this. But this is what he gets. A roomful cops. It’s an appropriate ending to a tale of bloody depravity.
Americans weaned on a diet of happy and joyful violence could learn something from this film. The gifted Danish man who made it would probably tell you he doesn’t know anything at all. But I’m sure he knows, despite the hisses and boos, that he’s really onto something.
Only God Forgives is currently available on OnDemand