Films that polarise opinion are always worth watching. When it was screened in competition at Cannes in 2013, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives was attacked with boos and defended with cheers by some audience members, both reactions indicative of the kind of puerile, extreme silliness that regularly threatens to undermine the credibility of this oh-so-serious film festival. However when the great unwashed outside of the French Riviera got to see it the reaction was – generally speaking – similarly divided: some praised Refn’s follow-up to Drive, another hyper-violent Refn film starring Ryan Gosling, suggesting that the visuals (bright colours and fashionable interior design abound) lifted it above and beyond the norm, while others complained that the minimal dialogue, plot and character development has resulted in a shallow tale that regularly seems in grave danger of disappearing up its own arse.
The truth, as per usual, probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. I don’t like sitting on the fence, but that’s unfortunately where I find myself, as I can see why both sides of the argument were put forward and continue to be made. It’s easy to be impressed by Refn’s stylish approach, and this is quite clearly the work of an intelligent and literate filmmaker, but equally it’s hard to disagree with those who believe the film’s deliberate coldness – not to mention its inherent nastiness – makes it difficult to like.
Gosling plays Julian, an American ex-pat living in Bangkok who uses a muay thai gym/arena – I’ve sat ringside at the venue used in the film, as it happens – as a front for drug-dealing in partnership with older brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy rapes and kills an under-age prostitute the story quickly turns into a bitter, twisted tale of revenge, which rapidly and predictably spirals out of control; Billy is beaten to death by the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul), while Julian’s decision to ignore the requests of his bloodthirsty mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and spare Lee’s life leads to further complications and a violent tit-for-tat war with the city’s police force, headed up by the corrupt Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The slow, blank Chang is nominally ‘The Angel Of Vengeance’, but he’s really the story’s ‘God’ figure, dispensing acts of justice that indicate Refn has no intention of tempering his obsession with gruesome violence (and indeed the director managed to make me feel extremely uncomfortable on a number of occasions, especially during a drawn-out torture sequence). Chang mainly dishes out his punishment using a sword, which he produces from behind his back, even though the weapon isn’t actually visible during most of his scenes; this sense of the supernatural works well, and Chang’s slicing n’ dicing is tied cleverly to Julian through the latter’s disturbing sex-related visions, which betray the American’s castration anxieties.
If Chang is God in this story, then the Devil must surely be Crystal, a mean, ruthless individual who directs affairs from the comfort of her luxurious hotel suite. A dream-like showdown between Chang and Julian has none of the weight or the importance of a later showdown between Chang and Crystal, after which the film stutters to a conclusion. Refn pairs his portentous biblical moments – Bangkok here is clearly designed to resemble hell, with Julian regularly bathed in red light – with Greek mythology, and the main character’s Oedipus complex is subtly established before the writer-director clumsily spells it out during the final act (though elements of this were actually suggested by Gosling).
Throughout there’s a contrast between the street life of Bangkok – filmed conventionally and presented realistically – and the interiors of the city, with the camera panning slowly along labyrinthine corridors and around starkly-lit rooms; there is movement but it feels still, and airless, and Julian is mainly a silent presence (Gosling has 17 lines in 90 minutes and spends most of the time staring enigmatically off-camera, as per usual). Yes, it looks great, and the meticulous cinematography by Larry Smith ensures a consistent nightmarish feel that often brings to mind the outer limits of Korean cinema, but unfortunately this pastiche feels too reverent. David Lynch and Wong Kar-wai have also both been mentioned as possible influences, but stylistically Refn’s latest exercise in formalism owes a bigger debt to Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps even a contemporary Kubrick disciple like Gaspar Noé.
My instinct is to attempt to stick up for the film, and Refn, simply because a lot of people reacted so vehemently against Only God Forgives when it was released; I generally subscribe to the school of thought that if a movie is rubbing some folks up the wrong way then that’s got to be more interesting – at the very least – than the bland, beige, inoffensive output rolled out in multiplexes most weeks. The complete lack of sympathetic major characters suggests that the Danish director is actually challenging audiences to like this film, or is perhaps trying as hard as possible to shed some of the fans (and therefore expectation) that he has carried since Drive became a hit. But try as I might to like Only God Forgives I’m put off by the violence and I don’t think Refn’s film is half as clever as it thinks it is. There are ideas here, and style in abundance, and that’s enough for some, though in arthouse cinema the long takes of not-a-lot happening is as tired a cliche as anything you’ll find routinely criticised in the mainstream. I wouldn’t personally consider any of it groundbreaking, and the unpleasant misogynistic streak ultimately meant I couldn’t relax, regardless of its themes, production design, vivid colouring and well-conjured ambiguity.
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringam, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown.
Cinematography: Larry Smith.
Editing: Matthew Newman.
Music: Cliff Martinez.
Running Time: 90 minutes.