Refn and Gosling team up for a nightmarish trip through a gorgeously depraved Bangkok
Few films have left my head swirling in confusion and ambivalence as much as Only God Forgives has. I have seen it twice because after the first I wasn’t sure whether it is one of the best films of the year or a piece of ‘pretentious macho nonsense’ and ‘preposterous designer revenge pulp’. To be able to penetrate as deeply as it does, as divisively as it does, is itself an achievement, one that director Nicolas Winding Refn knows and embraces.
It begins with a deus ex machina, the death of Billy (Tom Burke), older brother of Julian (Ryan Gosling). They own a Muay Thai fight club that doubles as a place to sell drugs. During the five minutes we see Billy, he whacks a pimp with a bottle on his head, smacks around women and kills a 16 year old prostitute. He’s got problems.
Billy’s death is precipitated by the involvement of a mysterious Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the judge, jury and executioner of Bangkok. Chang is more than just a man; he operates, just as the film does, on the spiritual, fantastical and real worlds. A God in his realm, he metes out his own justice by chopping off limbs with his sword and singing his gospel through Korean pop songs in empty nightclubs.
The aforementioned event forces Julian along the most well-documented path of the gangster: revenge. He proceeds with blank indifference, perhaps he’s secretly relieved. But Julian is stuck in inertia, unable to do anything, tormented by his violent past. The kind of inertia that induces an impotence that he cannot shake off.
While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok.
His inability to take care of business brings Julian’s psycho mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the mix to avenge her firstborn. She’s aggressive, foulmouthed, unapologetic and fierce, and Thomas approaches her character with a wicked relish. Crystal and Julian have a passive-aggressive relationship where she alternates between demeaning him (in arguably the best scene of the film, when he brings his Thai girlfriend for dinner) and then asking him for help, but Julian remains stoic, always ready to light one of his mother’s cigarettes when she needs it.
While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience. Here is a Renaissance painting for the 21st century, not just in how beautiful it looks (every color in this movie makes me feel like I am seeing them for the first time), but in how Refn expects us to treat it.
Traditional art forms like paintings and sculpture offer images that are open for interpretation by whoever views them, primarily because their creators aren’t around to provide the definitive explanation. In the film, dialogue is kept to a minimum and silence speaks louder than words, and the images, some phantasmagoric, that appear force you to figure out for yourself what’s going on. Using the dream mechanics of Inception, Refn designs this nightmare and we fill it in with our collective consciousness.
This filmmaking style, hypnotic, trance-like, meandering, is diametrically opposite to everything we watch today. In fact, its divisive nature recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but while that film was critically lauded, this work of art has been rejected by critics and audiences alike. Everything has to be spelt out for us and repeated again and again in current cinema, including subtext. The ones that are most critically appreciated offer a balance that make audiences feel more intelligent at having grasped this “hidden meaning” that ascends them to a higher level of awareness. Only God Forgives retains the purity of cinema sans linguistic exposition, it doesn’t stoop to mundane narrative levels. While most viewers were bored to death by the repeated takes of Gosling staring out into space blankly, I found myself using what I knew about him to piece together what he might be feeling. An ordinary film would have choked us with blatant exposition, here there is space to breathe and ponder.
While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience.
For every sequence of artistic impressionism, Refn caters to our baser instincts with extreme violence. The violence itself isn’t stylized apart from the obligatory slow motion because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a break from the mental workout of its unconventional cinematic language. This arrangement is almost like that of a symphony, and the film is like listening to Beethoven in a world saturated with pop music, AutoTune and Justin Bieber.
This is a gorgeous looking film (did I say that already?) drenched in red and blue neon, floating through the grimy streets of crime-ridden Bangkok, with characters that speak with their bodies more than their words, set to the tune of Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score. While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok. My instincts were right: cinematographer Larry Smith was a longtime Kubrick collaborator. Maybe, like many of Kubrick’s films, hindsight will give Only God Forgives the acclaim it deserves. Not that Refn cares.