With the Ryan Gosling-led Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn managed to make not only an arthouse critical darling, but a breakout cult hit that struck a chord with mainstream audiences. Naturally his followup, Only God Forgives, also starring Gosling, was highly anticipated.
Yet at its premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, audiences met Only God Forgives with a chorus of boos and hisses. The reception from non-festival cinemagoers was just as frosty. Whilst the negative response was not unanimous – some Cannes critics actually gave it a standing ovation – the loud hatred became one of the defining memories of what may actually be Refn’s masterpiece.
Despite sharing its lead actor with Drive, Only God Forgives has no interest in maintaining the constant atmosphere of ‘cool’ that its predecessor thrived on. The violence is far nastier, with the eye-slicing torture sequence one of the least glamorous and most distressing uses of cinematic violence I can think of.
Anyone who idolised the scorpion-jacketed Driver is likely to be repulsed by Julian. These elements may make for a slower and less accessible story, but the disgust one feels at the seedy Bangkok underworld and its inhabitants is vital. Julian is a man trapped in a hell created by himself, his mother, and maybe even the angel of death. Any hints that he might be ‘awesome’ due to his stoicism and involvement in Thai boxing would demolish the oppressive atmosphere Refn works so hard to create.
Only God Forgives is a film far less concerned with plot and dialogue than it is with exploring taboo themes through more visceral means. Visuals reign supreme, and Refn conducts every shot with a formal perfectionism that, when combined with the frequent surrealism, makes this film both look and feel unique.
One of the film’s most powerful sequences comes when the angel of death – taking the guise of a police lieutenant – croons to a karaoke bar filled with his fellow officers. Masterfully played by Vithaya Pansingram, Lt. Chang is Old Testament wrath personified. He can, at will, produce a sword from between his shoulder blades, so for his most striking scene to be a peaceful singing number – in a film almost defined by its gore – is an incredible feat.
Refn’s grasp of the power of violence in Only God Forgives is second to none. From Julian’s merciless beating at the hands of Chang (a bold uglification of Ryan Gosling) to the various grim gangland murders, the bloodletting here is sickening.
Criticisms of the ultraviolence are fair enough as far as the fact that the squeamish will not be able to sit through the film, but any suggestion that the barbarity displayed here is ‘exciting’ or exists for its own sake profoundly misses the point. Solving problems with violence in the real world is grubby, gut-wrenching, and rarely a good idea, and Refn reflects that reality superbly.
Crystal, Julian’s mother, brought to life by a positively demonic Kristin Scott Thomas, drives what little conventional narrative there is. At every opportunity, she emasculates her son, making their scenes together viciously uncomfortable. Not only does she repeatedly humiliate her son, but Oedipal tones are never far from the surface.
A sequence towards the end where Julian reaches into his own mother’s womb after her execution by Chang is one of the most transgressive in western cinema, tangibly violating a taboo that most ‘edgy’ films wouldn’t dare think about. Of course, gruesomely addressing touchy subjects doesn’t inherently make a film better, but the skill with which both Refn and Gosling handle the scene makes for an unforgettably unsettling moment. That the whole thing transpires after Julian’s ostensible ‘redemption’ moment makes sure that the audience never gets to feel remotely comfortable in his presence.
If you really couldn’t sit through Only God Forgives the first time around, it’s unlikely that anything I can say would change your mind. Refn has crafted a deliberately divisive piece of work here, and if everyone had come away satisfied, he most likely would have felt some sense of failure. It’s unremittingly gruesome, makes Ryan Gosling into a skin-crawlingly creepy figure, and never concerns itself with direct answers to the questions it raises. Yet the sheer skill of Refn as a master of visuals and atmosphere means that all these factors just add to the film’s allure.
Fittingly for a film with so many genuinely frightening dream sequences, Only God Forgives feels like being trapped in a nightmare, and movies this haunting are a precious rarity. Go into it with an open mind and you’ll still probably be horrified by what you find, but it’s this ability to burrow deep into your brain and plant incredibly long-lasting images that makes Refn’s 2013 effort such a staggeringly brilliant piece of work.
His latest, the LA fashion-industry horror The Neon Demon, has received just as mixed an opinion from this year’s Cannes, apparently heightening every element that made Only God Forgives so caustically inaccessible. I can’t wait.