Only God Forgives (2013)
It was with a combined sense of apprehension and anticipation that I approached Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn’s reunion with his stoically stolen muse of 2011’s breakthrough neo-noir Drive. Accelerated with both commercial and critical kudos the Danish brutalist has returned to a project he was prepping before he was diverted down those neon drenched* Los Angeles streets, but some initial reports from Cannes dammed the film with a devastating scorn, as claims of adolescent posturing and misogynistic pollution has dogged the project throughout its festival frenetics over the past few months. Regardless Refn has his cheerleaders with his new eagerly awaited Asian odyssey, Kim Newman has crafted a long piece in last months Sight & Sound and quite surprisingly The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has awarded the film a five-star accolade, just to be clear I’ve read neither of these pieces as I don’t wish to influence my opinions or potentially co-opt their observations – always a risk in these matters – but I knew that opinion was polarised with a cleaved strike of a razor tuned Wakizashi. We cult film fans have been following Refn’s career closely ever since his Pusher trilogy exploded on the screen back in 1996, for a different take on the urban underclass male milieu he has certainly forged his own idiosyncratic and uncompromising body of work, with themes of heroism, moral lexicons in the criminal underclass and testosterone throbbing identity populating a sparse and stripped back approach to narrative technique. Only God Forgives continues these obsessions in as crystalized a form as any of his previous eight movies – I still haven’t tracked down the hilarious sounding Miss Marple TV movie (and no I’m not being funny), he’s building a formidable body of work and with his Barbarella project moving forward one can only speculate on what on earth he’ll do with that cult classic. So before we truly slice and dice into his most recent hallucination, I loved how he kept the film titles in Thai with English subtitles, a neat little touch which demonstrates his commitment to cult movie contortions, and that’s just the first electrifying element of this exceptionally violent, ultra-stylised and potentially alienating entity.
Plunged into an acetylene torched Gehenna from the opening frames we are immersed in 21st century Bangkok, a hyper real miasma of bruising brutality, searing strip lights and moral compasses as irrelevant as a bloated sex tourists condom discipline. Foreign fuckhead Billy Thompson (Tom Burke) demands an underage hooker and goes berserk when his disgusting desires are thwarted, turning to more accessible avenues he rapes and murders a young street hooker. Enter Thai policeman Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – the films real protagonist and self-styled Angel of Vengeance despite the star centred marketing – who offers the poor wretches father a twisted choice, two minutes of unobserved attention to the American rapist for which he and his colleagues will turn a blind eye – you can grimacingly imagine what happens next. The retribution ignites a Oedipal and operatic chain of reprisals, Jason Thompson (Gosling) is urged to avenge his brothers dispatch despite his expressed disgust at his brothers crime, as appearances must be maintained and the pride of their street operations will harbour no mercy or empathy despite the nature of the transgression. Complicating Jason’s professed intransigence is the arrival of the brothers chilling platinum coffered mother Crystal (a positively molten Kristen Scott Thomas), demanding tribute she is the real matriarch of the heroin operation, and she demands that an unholy wrath is visited upon the police despite the potential consequences….
If as Alexandre Astruc mused that the camera is a pen, a stylus in the grasp of certain directors then Refn’s instrument is a phosphorescent billy club pummeling his audience into submission in a miasma of pulverized brains and nihilist absence, if you thought that Drive was an expedited exercise in style over subject then you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is film as tone poem, an excruciating, violent and groan inducing eulogy to honor and family, as arch, mannered and controlled as to potentially alienate a significant portion of any possible audience – vicious violence aside this is not a film for everyone. It runs as a succession of perfectly arranged, elevated and searingly shot ballets, quivering in a higher realm of unconscious dread, of drained souls writhing in a moral abyss. Gosling reprise his mannequin void and is impenetrable to notions of empathy or understanding, you’re never entirely sure what he thinks of his brothers crimes deep down inside, especially when revelations of his past crimes are incrementally revealed. I’ve absorbed much of the dismissive rejection of the film from North America and I have to say that I’m faintly concerned with this shift in appreciation, it’s a difficult, challenging and ponderous piece but seeing this movie on VoD, on the small screen as many critics did due to a miniscule theatre release really isn’t doing the film justice (no pun intended) as it’s very much a mood piece designed to be seen on a big screen, an experience akin to that recent strain of outré cinema such as Antichrist or Enter The Void. It’s relative merits right or wrong should be debated, but at the very least you must approach this as a cinematic experience, as Only God Forgives is a picture which can only be fully appreciated if you commit to a fully immersive, in the dark, undistracted digestion.
Whatever the films chimeric charms one element is unimpeachably memorable – Kristen Scott’s Thomas acidic turn as the horrific Crystal is one of the most majestically memorable characters of the year, some of her utterances are jaw-droppingly stunning and as deathly hilarious as her mothering management. The template was apparently Donatella Versace in appearance, a witch in wraith’s clothing who wallows in oedipally manipulating her sallow wolves in order to maintain her matriarchal mastery. Gosling is Gosling from previous incarnations, an empty attractive vessel in which you are invited to invest your own interpretations of his motivations and internal whirring machinery, he makes Jean Pierre Melville’s silent trenchcoated samurai seem positively exuberant in comparison. One of the chief criticisms of Refn from the serious brigade following the unleashing of this film has shrieked from those expecting a leap to another level of ‘maturity’ following Drive’s sleek success, claiming that once you’ve got those early, low-budget shudders out of your system – the Pusher films, the UK financed exercises – then you should be achieving new levels of accomplishment as your mastery of the form evolves over a career and the budgets become more dense, with many of his arbiters seeing this as another flatline exercise of style over substance. I’m not so sure, pushing aside the patronising tone of such conclusions it’s clear Refn’s a canny provocateur, like his controversial companions Von Trier, Gasper Noe and Harmony Korine he enjoys baiting the intelligentsia, understanding the dimensions of modern movie marketing but not I think deliberately pulling William Castle gruesome gimmickry or dare I say it Cecil B DeMille’s deliberate delves into shocking subject matter in order to sell his movie to a potentially prurient crowd. I counter that he’s just as invested to these tales and exploring these dark dungeons of the psyche as he was when he commenced his career, it’s his pure raison d’être, and whilst this recent film might have alighted in a thematic cul-de-sac it doesn’t mean these sewers can’t yield important albeit uncomfortable illuminations of the human condition.
Since his passing in 1999 I don’t think I’ve seen such an ostentatious and unapologetic appropriation of Kubrick than the design and tone of this movie, such a tribute – unacknowledged or not – could go either way with a snooty acolyte of Stan the Man such as myself, but for the most part I was fully immersed in this tangled Thai tale, and I fully appreciated the chrism of technique and delivery marrying Refn’s underlying ethos. Yes Bronson was his clear tribute to A Clockwork Orange and he obviously harbours an enormous influence across his work but stylistically the embedding in Only God Forgives are tree rubbings lifted from The Shining’s Timberline lodge, as all the filmmaking ingredients have been sequestered from the Kubrick crib-sheet. Refn’s characters are cyphers like Jack or Barry, stoic signifiers of complex ideals and ideologies, uncertain free-form floating composites of expansive broad notions – honour, duty, machismo, pride – and this approach to characterisation through sparse, clipped and neutered dialogue, through environment and aura rather than action elevate the film to exceptionally arch and mannered plateaus. The cuts and pacing to the score which Cliff Martinez has clearly plundered from the atonal disquiet of Penderecki and Ligetti, the metronome editing rhythms of the perfectly composited tableaux’s, the deep-focus planar arrangements, all illuminated by Larry (Eyes Wide Shut) Smith’s lighting schemata results in not a single scene in this film which isn’t constructed to the nth degree, and that can either alienate or illuminate depending on your personal preferences – one of the centerpieces of the film is evocative of this.
I think I need a second viewing to really get my head round this phantasmagoric, sweaty nightmare, but my initial response is relief to see Refn not resting on his laurels and continuing to push at the boundaries of taste and decency, with so much filmmaking these days being so antiseptic and focus-group moderated he may make you uncomfortable, you may grimace at some of his choices but you’re glad there is someone championing acetic interrogation in the art-form. There are no moral bodices, the cops and the criminals identical in their pursuit of their perverted interpretations of justice, with no safe protagonist to root for so the film gets uppercut to a nihilistic nirvana, pornographic in its intensity, pretentious in its perversion. I doubt Refn has much more to say other than human beings are deeply cruel animals which are driven by ambivalent forces, with men in particular perverted by a testosterone clouted codex which demands they avenge even their pederast homicidal kin, or perhaps it’s a sly satire on the chisel chimed samurai of the cinematic past, as one can’t help but see the pugilist particulars of Coburn, Eastwood and Kitano inverted in one showdown which quite hilariously doesn’t go to expected plan. In any case Refn once again emits a fantastic grasp of location and space – the medieval Scottish veldts of Valhalla Rising, the Croydon claustrophobic of Bronson, the mean streets of the City Of Angels, and for cult movie gourmets this will be one of the most astringently orchestrated films of the year;
*Yeah, I know, it’s an exhausted phrase which I’m retiring for a few months. But it does do the job, those streets are literally drenched with neon ain’t they?….