If I had to describe Nicholas Winding Refn’s body of work in one sentence, it would be, “If Tarantino made silent films.” On paper his films are glorious examples of the exploitation genre, rife with bloody revenge tales and exceedingly violent landscapes from every corner of the world. What separates Refn from the rest though is his refusal to equate “genre” with “entertainment”, meaning he uses certain commonly perceived tropes to lure audiences in while his true intentions are far darker. As the audience we have grown accustomed to viewing our action heroes and villains as simple “born that way” character types. Deafening explosions and gunfire drown out any need for explanation as to why this man can kill without blinking, or why he would take a bullet for a stranger. Refn supplies the necessary genre surface material, but sets his cinematic clock 5 minutes early so that instead of watching the massive gun fight we see the moment right before, where our hero struggles with notions of his own mortality, despair, and even Divine judgement. That is not to say there is no action in Refn’s films, but when it occurs it is performed with an almost serial-killer precision and coldness. This matter-of-fact violence only forces us more to think of our fictional pop culture icons less as 1-note embodiments of virtue/vice and more as the result of systematic abuse or mental illness, resulting in extreme personality types. Now this could be done with long scenes of exposition, but once again Refn subverts expectations and only hints at his characters’ damaged psyches with an extremely delicate look or touch.
Critics who whine about nothing happening simply lack the imagination to fill in the gaps. Silence is terrifying to most people. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and easily remedied by a casual flick to unlock your smartphone, but the truth is that silence can be far more telling than actual dialogue. Here are some splendid uses of silence in movies and how powerful it can be. 1. 2. (and finally to fully illustrate my point) 3. I think most people, even extreme extroverts, would describe themselves as being “unusually introspective” because A) everyone thinks their mental life is deeper than those around them, and B) they realize that they never feel more themselves than when they are alone. (I truly hope that’s not just an introvert thing 🙂 Refn’s characters are almost entirely silent, but are able to speak volumes to those of us willing to listen. Of course the immediate objection is that there is a distinction between a muted but impassioned performance and a writer who just doesn’t give a crap about dialogue, which is why these kinds of characters are so divisive since subjectivity plays such a strong role.
Earlier I mentioned Divine judgement, and the reason I did so was highlight the notion of hell in Refn’s film work. Once he strips away the comfort associated with genre films, his characters are left to survive in their own seemingly self-made hells. Refn’s earlier film Bronson begins with Tom Hardy naked in a cage, illuminated by a hellish red glow. Suddenly the door to his cell bursts open and cops dressed entirely in black rush in and begin beating him with their fists and clubs. The “damned soul being tormented by demons” imagery is immediate and reflects how Refn treats his “protagonists”. (Watch here) Only God Forgives is no exception, walking the line between exploitation/revenge tale and dream-like examination of the circle of violence. The primary motif which is present throughout is hands. In the film hands are stabbed, cut off, tied to chairs, viewed in extreme slo-mo, and used for something fairly disturbing near the end. In the film Gosling’s creeper brother is killed for being a rapist and murderer and their mother, played gloriously by Kristin Scott Thomas, flies to them in Bangkok to seek revenge on those who killed her son, preferably through Gosling. To give you a sense of her character, when Gosling tells her what his brother did, she responds, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” Yowzers. Their quest for revenge is halted by a mysterious cop named Chang who delivers his own justice on the streets, whether its by bowl of bubbling oil or his signature katana. Oh, and did I mention that the katana always suddenly appears on his back whenever he’s about to kill? It’s very subtly done, and most probably won’t notice it because the camera never focuses on it, but its bizarre touches like this that inform you that what you are watching is not the real Bangkok, but a nightmare landscape that plays by its own twisted rules. Of course Chang is an obvious Grim Reaper representation, but he’s punishing this family for more than the sins of Gosling’s brother. Refn hints at an oedipal relationship between son and mother, with Gosling desperate but unable to form a connection with anyone besides his mother.
In some ways Only God Forgives reminded me of In the Mood for Love, which is of course a far superior film, but both were exquisitely filmed in Asian cities with amazing soundtracks and with an emphasis on previous baggage preventing relationships from forming. Only God Forgives fails to adequately compare with In the Mood for Love by not fully committing to its characters. As much I respect what Refn was doing with this film, I felt at times his more artistic/intellectual side didn’t gel correctly with his pulpy revenge yarn, and that he distilled Gosling’s character to the point ambiguity, instead of subtlety. Only God Forgives is clearly meant to be a companion piece to Drive, and while I appreciate Refn not making Gosling in this film the same unstoppable badass like he was in Drive, he didn’t necessarily need to make him so vanilla at times. I’m all for an understated performance, as I’ve said before, but only when it serves the character. Also it’s lack of narrative escalation near the end makes it difficult at times to invest. There are some interesting and twisted themes present, but they remain stationary in the background for far too long and start becoming depressing. Maybe that’s the point, but too much darkness can be stifling. You don’t need your characters to be redeemed, just to struggle.
So, wrapping up, Only God Forgives is a full on inaccessible art film that will certainly disappoint anyone looking for an action flick. My opinion of Refn is exactly the same as my opinion of Malick; I love them both for making films against the grain without any thought to “will this make the studio any money”, but at the same time I can’t really condemn those who despise them. I fully understand their complaints. Last year I loved Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, but didn’t feel the need to defend its many naysayers. And so it goes. As far as I’m concerned, give me a gritty neo-noir cityscape filled with the tortured and damned any day, just be sure to give me something pure to hold onto, no matter how small. (B-)
PS: Cinematographer Larry Smith does some of his best work in this film, using his experience while working on Eyes Wide Shut to cast a brilliant display of neon and gold onto the streets of Bangkok. Every shot is frameworthy and it alone repels and juvenile “worst movie ever made!” comments.