In Nicolas Winding Refn’s provocative new film, Only God Forgives, boxing club manager-drug smuggler Julian (Ryan Gosling) finds himself hopelessly trapped in the realm between heaven and hell, a state of hyper-reality where he is physically and mentally beaten down by two menacing individuals who control his life. In an abstract sense, this kind of tension between opposing forces epitomises the intersection between art and commerce that often haunts the customary filmmaker working within the independent domain. For many, wrestling between the commercial possibilities of Hollywood-esque conformity and the idiosyncrasies of the ‘art-house’ audience is akin to a form of cinematic limbo, where one wrong decision has the power to extinguish filmmaking dreams.
Refn is no stranger to this minefield. Between launching his career with the critically acclaimed crime drama Pusher (1996) to driving his production company into financial ruin with the fiendishly impenetrable Fear X (2003), the polarising Danish director has experienced the unpredictable highs and lows of the profession. After a recent string of successes, which reached an exuberant peak with the release of his mesmerising neo-noir Drive (2011), Refn’s foray into Hollywood seemed all but assured: his visually-arresting dreamscapes perfectly suited for studio blockbuster fodder.
But Only God Forgives is not a Hollywood blockbuster. Exploiting the hallucinatory sheen and subversive energies of Drive, Refn’s latest effort instead plunges further down the rabbit hole, offering an uncompromising crime drama that revels in abstraction and minimalism. Set in neon-saturated Bangkok, where malevolence and a strict code of justice collide, monosyllabic deviants are seduced by the criminal underworld as a means to fulfil their dark desires. Long, uncomfortable moments of silence in the film are punctuated by shocking scenes of violence, as bones are broken, limbs dismembered and eyes gouged out of sockets with devastating precision. Unlike Drive, the world in Only God Forgives challenges us with a mystical quality that allows the characters to float aimlessly, their motives and actions often defying logical explanation.
However, most critics have not been nearly as kind or accommodating. Despite taking out the highest honour at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year in a surprise decision, Only God Forgives has been met with vocal cries of derision and bewilderment. Vulture critic David Edelstein condemned the film as ‘just about one of the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen’, while Jeffrey Wells brutally described it as ‘defecation’. Sensationalism aside, Refn deliberately poured fuel on the flames of discontent at Cannes by declaring himself a ‘pornographer’ who has ‘a fetish for violent emotions and images’: a verbal middle-finger to those trashing the film solely because of the extreme violence, perceived nihilism and general lack of accessibility.
What quickly becomes apparent in Only God Forgives is that Refn is not interested in constructing relatable characters and heroic acts of redemption than he is in launching a vigorous assault on generic conventions and depicting the cesspool of humanity. In the chilling opening sequence, we see Julian’s psychotic brother Billy prowling the streets, at one point, proclaiming that he ‘wants to fuck a 14 year-old.’ When he can only find a 16 year-old prostitute, he unleashes a wave of senseless fury, leaving the girl’s lifeless body in a pool of blood on the floor of a seedy motel room.
This horrifying crime sets in motion the chain of violence that follows, where blood flows freely, predicated on murderous betrayal and revenge. However, beneath the pulpy premise, Refn adds narrative and thematic complexity by utilising a progressive and instinctive approach – more satisfied with allowing the camera to find the story than using the spoken word.
We see this come to fruition when Julian’s moral conflict over his brother’s death intensifies with the arrival of his abhorrent, manipulative mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their Oedipal relationship plays out as a glorious, Lynchian homage to the psycho-sexual malaise of Blue Velvet, with Julian never able to completely detach himself from the womb. Julian’s level of mindless obedience towards his mother is echoed by the squad of police officers who constantly accompany Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the film’s disturbingly stoic and spectral-like antagonist who alternates between singing karaoke in bars to delivering swift acts of vengeance.
In response to negative uproar after the film’s release, Refn has spoken passionately about the need to be fearless in the filmmaking process, believing that ‘polarisation is essentially the definition of penetration into an audience’. Certainly, when working on an independent production, the greatest fear for all filmmakers should not be the possibility of receiving criticism, but consequently leaving the audience without any opinion at all.
So is Only God Forgives a masterpiece or misfire? When Julian’s irrevocable choices lead to the ambiguous end point, Refn has all but assured that we will at least have strong opinions one way or the other.
Scott Macleod (@ScottWMacleod) is a Killings columnist, academic, freelance writer (www.scottwmacleod.com) and ardent cinephile. He currently lives in the lovely town of Adelaide, the so-called ‘home of serial killers’.