Nicolas Winding Refn, during the interviews leading up to Only God Forgives, has emphasized that when making films, he largely makes decisions to satisfy his own visual and violent fetishes — going so far as to label himself a “pornographer” in this specific regard. I’m not sure that he’s wrong, and I’m not sure that I mind. Refn’s certainly made philosophically and socially minded films before — his Danish Pusher trilogy is a statement on futile efforts to find social mobility in the Copenhagen crime underworld, managing to evoke unbearable existential dread in the process. But in recent years he’s preoccupied himself with, more or less, visually-driven pop entertainment: the ebullient, rollicking British character study Bronson, as well as the synth-driven, (infamously) hyper-violent escapist masterpiece Drive. Refn’s developed something of his own cinematic language in the process; distinguished by gaping periods of silence, unusually heightened emotions and sudden bursts of hilariously graphic violence.
With 2011’s Drive, Refn pulled off the near-impossible as far as nutty Danish art-house directors go: he solidified a great creative & personal friendship with one of the most famous men on the planet, Ryan Gosling, achieved fairly potent mainstream box office success and the adoration of the art-house community the world over. The possibilities were infinite. He could get his hands on any franchise on the planet. Any superhero Refn wanted could conceivably go between his lens. He could make anything.
He made Only God Forgives.
A $4.8 million pitch-black, Thailand-set crime drama fairy tale with overtones of incest, sexual assault and frequent mutilation, Only God Forgives is at once a bold rejection by Gosling and Refn of the mainstream success they experienced with Drive and a deeply similar continuation of much of that film’s violent themes and detached style. Remember the scene in Drive where Ryan Gosling viciously, repeatedly stomped a mob henchman’s skull into an elevator floor? Only God Forgives is for those that chuckled at that scene.
Gosling’s character actually has a name this time around — Julian — but funnily enough, he goes even further with the deadly-silent persona that he and Refn have established. He may utter around 20 sentences in the movie. His Julian is enslaved to his foul-mouthed mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to the point of alarm — and so when his brother is murdered by a silent knife-wielding policeman known as the Angel of Death, Crystal sends Julian on a revenge mission to strike him back. Further crippling the already sycophantic Julian: living with the knowledge that his brother was killed for abusing an underage prostitute and thus more than deserved what came to him.
The film thus sets up an inevitable confrontation between Julian and the Angel of Death, but takes its sweet time in doing so. Refn has referred to Only God Forgives as a story of a “man who wants to fight God”, and loudly establishes visual motifs of spiritual conflict and ethical guilt. (You will see men looking at their hands, contemplating past deeds..like, a lot.) Larry Smith’s phenomenal cinematography bathes these abhorrent characters in vivid reds and creeping darkness, which bashes the audience over the head even further with its themes, but in the most beautiful way possible.
There’s a lot of surface-level beauty to be extrapolated from Only God Forgives, and I feel no guilt in admitting that I regard the film highly for it. Nearly films will (rightfully) place their significance in theme, in intertextual reference, in character, and in emotional release. This is fine. For those qualities I will go to them. But with his work here, Refn’s highest end seems to be pushing the visual and sensory potential of cinema to a place as graceful as it is garish. Drive, in its many complexities, was both essay and love-letter: commenting on the dangers of machismo taken to its furthest extreme while proudly embracing the romance and corniness of John Hughes-type movies. If you didn’t find value in one, you could enjoy the other, and this is why Drive found its audience.
Only God Forgives, by contrast, is pure nightmare. And tell me — do your nightmares have to make sense to penetrate your soul?