I’m wearing the same expression as Ryan Gosling there: I just saw Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s followup to Drive. (If you’re in Chicago, it’s playing through Thursday, 8 August at the Music Box; the film is also apparently streaming online.) Actually, I was so impressed I went and saw it twice.
Anyone out there want to chat about it? I’ll post some initial thoughts after the jump. (Beware of serious spoilers, though: these points cover the entire film, and give away key plot points.)
[My capsule review for those who don’t want to read the rest: Of the five new films I’ve seen so far this year, Only God Forgives is easily the most compelling and my favorite. In second place is probably Iron Man 3, which I mostly enjoyed, but found nowhere near as interesting as this. Securely in last place is Star Trek Into Darkness.]
- A lot of people will despise this film because they’ll go in expecting Drive 2: Driven. And while both films share certain aesthetic concerns, Only God Forgives is not another sweet, fun, periodically violent movie like Drive. It is instead consistently and brutally violent, nightmarish, and challengingly abstract. In that regard, it’s more like the “black metal Viking film” that Refn made before Drive, Valhalla Rising. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Refn wrote OGF before he made Drive.)
- I’ll reiterate that Only God Forgives is very violent movie. Refn refers to both Gaspar Noé and Alejandro Jodorowsky in the credits, which is apt; he’s making a companion piece to their films. David Lynch’s influence is also palpable, especially Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway. (Just like Drive, OGF is heavily allusive.)
- But I don’t think that the extremely unnerving violence is why so many people have disliked this one. Many movies are violent. What makes Only God Forgives so consternating is threefold.
- First, unlike with Drive, Only God Forgives is often spatially and temporally disorienting, which will no doubt annoy many people to no end. But Refn (who shot the film in scene order) has very deliberately built this disorientation into the film, and it is precisely these experiments with time and space that provide much of the film’s pleasure.
- The disorientation begins with the all-Thai opening credits, which reminded me of Tarantino’s nod to the Shaw Bros. at the opening of Kill Bill, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s dedicating Breathless to Monogram Pictures.
- Actually, I was reminded of Breathless repeatedly throughout the movie. Refn, like Godard (and like Seijun Suzuki), is using a familiar gangster story as the basis for exploring various formal issues. As I’ve said elsewhere, if you want to make something radical, it can be a good idea to start with something familiar and deform that. (This is pure Russian Formalism—Refn gets it!)
- Some, however, will think the movie plotless, and its dialogue bad. That would be wrong. Refn has erected the bare minimum of plot and dialogue needed to motivate the movie and keep it going. For instance, the scene where Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) meet Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) for dinner, is simple to the point of being comical. But there is no need to make it more plausible. It very elegantly does precisely what it needs to in this film.
- I’ve read an earlier draft of the script (you can find it if you’re willing to stick your arm into the darker corners of the internet), which featured much more expository dialogue—explanations as to who or what the police office Chang is, and further details regarding Julian’s family’s business. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that Refn cut all of that out. In translating the film from script to screen, he removed a lot that was extraneous—not unlike how Rick Rubin helped Kanye West subtract elements from Yeezus.
- This reduction left Refn free to explore other issues, such as cinematic conventions for constructing time and space—not to mention more room for gorgeous shots of people walking slowly from one place to another, their footsteps echoing impossibly loudly. (Point Blank is another clear influence here.)
- Drive was occasionally dreamlike and fantastical, but it remained rooted in a plausible time and place. Only God Forgives lets go and, like Valhalla Rising, functions more as a dream (or a nightmare). The cinematographer, Larry Smith, also shot Eyes Wide Shut, which featured a delightfully fake-looking New York City. Only God Forgives brings the same lack of interest in verisimilitude to Bangkok.
- This delivers us to the second reason why I suspect people haven’t liked the film: the film’s interest in performance, and of being the subject of focused attention. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it features numerous scenes in which a character stands on display in front of an inscrutable crowd. The test of the character is how he or she responds to that attention—how he or she performs.
- For instance, watch the first time we meet Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He walks down the alley, then turns to stride toward the hotel where Billy has raped and murdered the prostitute. He is first on display for us, walking toward us. Then, as he approaches the building, he becomes the object of the attention of other characters, who are silently sitting and standing there, bathed by blue and red police lights. But Chang’s stride never falters—he walks steadily, at his own pace, on display but without any reaction to so much attention. And this of course follows a scene where people are gathered to watch a Muay Thai boxing match. As well as several scenes where Billy observes and is observed by prostitutes.
- I remember thinking the first time I saw these scenes: “This whole movie is going to be variations on the strip club scene in Drive, where Gosling’s character threatened the thug with the bullet and the hammer, all while the motionless strippers impassively observed.” And I wasn’t wrong!
- For instance, in what is probably the most harrowing scene in the film, Chang tortures an ex-pat goon in front of his entertainers and others. The film even comments on this concept, as one of the police officers instructs all present: “Remember, girls, whatever happens, keep your eyes closed. And you men…take a good look.” The film well understands what the viewer is feeling: I want to watch, but I don’t want to watch, but I want to watch. (We even get a nod toward one of cinema’s earliest shock moments: Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou.)
- These scenes of concentrated performance are more often than not the scenes where Refn most distorts time and space. For instance, pay attention to the second sex scene between Julian and Mai, when Julian gets up and reaches through the beaded curtain to touch her. Refn in facts cuts between two different times: in one of them, Julian remains seated on the couch, wearing a black t-shirt; in another, he gets up and touches Mai while wearing a white t-shirt. Two different scenes are being conflated (which might suggest that one—the one where Julian actually does something!—is not really happening). Complicating things further is that Refn then introduces another space: he crosscuts Julian and Mai with shots of Crystal, who is seated on a couch and leering. The montage implies that she’s watching Julian and Mai—but Refn then reveals that Crystal is watching a different sexual performance, featuring muscular young men in thongs.
- Ever since Lev Kuleshov—hell, ever since Edwin S. Porter—cinema’s artists have been exploring the ways that they can construct time and space through montage. In other words, much of the content of Only God Forgives is cinema itself—surely a worthy enough subject for a film?
- Many won’t think so, and as a result, they will think the movie empty, or valueless. J.R. Jones, for instance, writing in the Chicago Reader, complains in his review that the film’s “fascination with extreme gore never amounts to more than a fetish, and there’s none of the deft characterization that made [Refn’s] revered Pusher trilogy and British biopic Bronson so engaging.” How to respond to such a shallow reading?
- For starters, the fetishism that Jones so quickly dismisses comprises the very heart of Only God Forgives, which is fascinated with fetishes (surely another worthy subject for the cinema?). Understanding and accepting this proves crucial to grasping the deft characterization so thoroughly on display, but that Jones has not eyes to see. The film’s central narrative is Julian’s growing fascination with Chang, and the power that that supernatural force of a man embodies—literally embodies, in his all-powerful right sword arm. Julian initially thinks himself powerful, the owner of a boxing arena and school, but the film steadily dispels him of that illusion. Note, for instance, the film’s contrasting of Julian with the Muay Thai statue, very early on. Julian’s attempt to form fists proves feeble. Later, during Julian’s fight with Chang, Refn match cuts between Chang and the Muay Thai statue, demonstrating who really possesses that power.
- Once you see this aspect of the film, you see that it’s stuffed with the “deft characterization” that Jones desires. The first sex scene between Julian and Mai, for instance, provides numerous clues to Julian’s psychology. Mai ties to him to a chair and proceeds to masturbate as he observes. Julian then senses the presence of Chang and gets up (he has magically become untied) to explore blood-red corridors until he arrives before a door as ominously black as any door in a David Lynch film. (Actually, an older precedent can be found in the hallway scene in the cosmetics factory in Marc Robson and Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, as well as in the mirror that leads between worlds in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.) Julian tentatively reaches his right arm into the void, only to have it get lopped off by Chang just as Mai reaches orgasm. (There’s a free term paper on vagina dentata waiting to be written there.)
- Julian craves power, and sexual satisfaction, but he fears humiliation—but he also craves humiliation. These issues are inextricably intertwined for him; note how his mother’s humiliations of him are always sexual. Above all else, Julian (who is impotent?) craves potence, and the film details his discovery and exploration of a power greater than his own.
- This gets to the third reason why this film will probably displease many viewers: Gosling is playing the exact opposite of the strong silent type he portrayed in Drive. Julian is instead a weak silent man—a coward and a momma’s boy who’s only reward is betrayal and abuse—and who nonetheless keeps coming back for more! (Did Guy Maddin direct this?)
- Note how, after Julian dons the three-piece suit for his dinner date with his mother, he keeps it on for the rest of the film. (Mai, of course, gets out right away, and later abandons Julian, after he’s been thoroughly beaten by Chang.) Note also how Julian’s various black and white outfits are variations on Chang’s unchanging black-and-white suit, while everyone else wears reds and blues and yellows.
- Most importantly, note how Julian ultimately realizes and accepts that the only thing that will satisfy him is humiliation and, eventually, castration at the hands of a foreigner. In other words, Julian finds the fulfillment he’s looking for. The film’s ending is actually a happy one!
- There’s your engaging and deft characterization, J.R. Jones—though I doubt you’ll enjoy it.
- (Has anyone out there read Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode“?)
Well, I’ll no doubt have more to say about the movie later, but for now…what are your own thoughts?