Anyone who goes into Only God Forgives expecting Drive 2: Bangkok Drift is going to be disappointed. Drive was the unlikely combination of Nicolas Winding Refn’s aestheticized violence and the fuzzy feeling of John Hughes. Only God Forgives is a prickly revenge flick filtered through David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, and the VHS-era homage Beyond the Black Rainbow.
There are dozens of pregnant pauses, there are long stretches of silence that track down corridors, the characters don’t really feel like people so much as vessels for ideas about character-types. And then there’s the score from Cliff Martinez. This isn’t a synth-pop mix tape. Instead the music is sinister and full of BWAAAAAMs (which I’m getting awfully sick of), though these moments of high dread are occasionally interrupted by the muzack at a joyless karaoke bar.
That is not a metaphor. There’s a karaoke bar in the film, and it’s a place without joy. Just like one of the characters who sings at this establishment, the film takes itself so seriously that it never acknowledges its many plunges into unintentional camp.
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Only God Forgives
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (limited, VOD)
Only God Forgives is such a different animal from Drive. Refn’s latest is an excruciatingly mannered art house exercise in style. There’s no weight to anything that happens — not the sex, not the violence, not the over-the-top offensiveness of Kristen Scott Thomas’s character — since there’s no substance to the events. It’s a work of accidental self-parody in line with Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and Brian De Palma’s Passion.
The movie is a series of ellipses followed by punctuation. It sort of makes sense, though. Here are some of my favorite lines from Ryan Gosling’s character in the film:
- “…” [nostrils flare ever so slightly] “…”
- “TAKE OFF THE DRESS!!!”
- “…You wanna fight?”
Actually, Only God Forgives is not an animal. Like Gosling’s quiet-type, Refn’s film is more like a robot or a machine. It’s cold, empty, lacking in humanity, but undeniably well-designed in order to achieve its purpose, which was, as far as I could tell, merely to be well-designed.
A drug dealer named Julian (Gosling) runs some kind of kickboxing school/gym in Bangkok. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders an underaged girl. Billy is murdered, and a cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm has something to do with his death. Julian and Billy’s mother (the psychotic evil twin of Kristin Scott Thomas) comes into town seeking revenge on the “yellow n**ger” who’s responsible. Everything she says is about as absurdly offensive as that, which makes almost everything she says play out like a farce on the ugliest ideas of ugly Americans.
Throughout the film, Gosling looks like he’s in a daze, barely emoting but always looking good barely doing it. In Drive there at least seemed to be thought behind those eyes. Here, you get the same expression from Gosling from beginning to end. You’d get a comparable expression from your pet cat if you showed it last year’s tax return.
In one scene a gorgeous prostitute named Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) presents her crotch to Julian and then masturbates in front of him while he’s tied to a chair just a few feet away. Julian looks like he’s watching a tea kettle on the stove. When he later paws Mai through hanging love beads in the corner of a room, he looks like he’s glancing blankly out the window on an overcast day. When he’s at dinner with Mai and his own mother and his mom calls Mai a “cum receptacle” (or something along those lines), Gosling looks like he’s watching paint dry.
The stoic posturing became so annoying that I wanted to yell at the screen, “Just friggin’ say something already, you dumb jerk!”
And yes, I understand the characters are empty because they’re really symbols for revenge, righteousness, indecision, and other thematic stuff. And yes I understand the critique of revenge as something hollow. And sure, the cop is doling out warped vigilante justice to lowlifes which suggests a different and almost noble dimension to his brand of violence. And yeah, I noticed the portentous dog with a bum leg hobbling around in that one shot. And sure the passivity of the Gosling character reframes the idea of what sort of revenge film this is. And of course I get the subversion of unpleasantness by shooting it so well. And yeah, I totally see the Oedipal stuff between Gosling and Thomas because the movie is so blunt about it — it reeks of Freud like Hoboken reeks of Axe Body Spray on a Friday night.
But getting it is not the same as liking what I got.
These are all interesting ideas and they might work for some people, but for me interesting ideas and style cannot sustain a movie alone. Sometimes sure, but I want a sense of weight of some kind that goes beyond the merely aesthetic and intellectual — some marrow in the bones, some heart in that chest. Instead we get zonked-out Gosling looking dreamy while Thomas drops vulgarities like prepositions. But the film’s biggest sin, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, is that it’s just plain boring in stretches. Live by vapid style, die by vapid style.
To the film’s credit, vapid imagery has never looked so good. Neither has gratuitous violence. Limbs get hacked off, torsos get split open, there’s a torture porn scene, there’s a blood-drenched room, and it all looks splendid. Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith seem incapable of creating bad visuals, and I admire the deep shadows and the stark Dario Argento monochrome in the hallway shots even though the most interesting thing about those tracking shots is the wallpaper. (To be fair, it is very nice wallpaper.) Makeup artists Vitch Chavasit and Pattera Puttisuraset know their way around stylish viscera. If only the mayhem actually meant something.
The film ends on an odd and abrupt note followed by a dedication to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre). Refn is a major fan of Jodorowsky’s, and for his next project he wants to adapt The Incal, a brilliant science fiction comic that Jodorowsky did with Moebius throughout the 1980s. I can’t want to see what Refn does with that material, and I hope the movie happens. Yet his invocation of Jodorowsky made me realize what differentiates the fascinating violence of a Jodorowsky movie from the banal violence of Only God Forgives.
Jodorowsky declared “I LOVE VIOLENCE!” during an episode of Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only in 1991. Blood can be anything in a Jodorowsky movie — grapes, blue paint, birds, smoke, paper, whatever’s handy. It’s all operating on a metaphorical level because everything Jodorwosky does is about acts of alchemy. We’re base material, here’s art turning us into something different — horror into Guernica. “A child comes into the world covered in blood — that is violent,” Jodorowsky said in a 2000 radio interview with CFRB in Toronto. Violence is creative, and it’s a force of life. It’s an idea that goes all the way back to his early obsessions with convulsive art and the panic movement.
The violence is just violence in Only God Forgives, no matter how aestheticized. It’s generally non-transformative (unless you count broken noses as transformative) since there’s little change in the characters (aside from becoming amputees or corpses) or in the movie’s tone or approach to violence. Here is violence that seems merely tautological: A = A. It’s not even like that tautology towards the end of Gravity’s Rainbow: “The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple.” With that line in the novel, there’s an odd, unveiled moment of truth. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of dense metaphor, and suddenly revelation. Hallelujah!
In Only God Forgives, the man gets sharp things stabbed through his forearms like a man getting sharp things stabbed through his forearms. It’s about as profound as it sounds.