Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a hyper-stylised picture book gleaming with a self-assured sense of grandeur.
To give you an idea of how seriously the film takes itself, its opening credits appear in a sprawling, golden Thai typeface. A good deal of the camera movement is an insufferably slow, low-angle crawl towards characters perpetually posed like celebrity tabloid magazine covers in centre frame.
One of the characters gets around in a priestly white-collar (which, only people who can read the credits would know, is the uniform of retired Thai police lieutenant) and, shot from a low angle, towers deistically as he unsheathes his sword with a metallic chink. After severing the hands of whichever assailant (because that’s how law enforcement works in Thailand), he usually offers his singing voice to a bunch of whiskey-drinking, leather-clad bar dwellers – precisely as vocal as he gets in the film. The idea, I think, is that he’s some God-like vanguard of biblical ethicality. According to Not Wikipedia, his street name is Angel of Death. I would suggest Stalwart of Sword, Silence, and Karaoke.
But he’s not the only one riding some glossy facade of mock-biblical self-importance. The characters, acting and cinematography all have this timbre – but any mirage of depth quickly deteriorates into a bunch of images that are alluringly pretty, yes, but childishly vapid. For all its ominously-rising scoring, exotic Microsoft Word fonts and beautiful, lurid settings, Only God Forgives grates along on naught but rote and empty thematics like ‘machoism’ and ’emasculation’, and ‘vendetta’, or ‘Oedipal’.
In Bangkok, brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling – with a make-up job so good all that the only blemish from when Refn and Derek Cianfrance tug-of-warred him in half is a missing line of hair in the right eyebrow) own a deadbeat boxing club as a front for their (presumably) international but little-shown drug peddling business. Billy is one of those smirking, maniacal types whose maliciousness is written all over his face. We come as he rapes and kills a young sex worker, perhaps for no reason other than falling two years shy of his bloodlust for a 14-year-old one. Our aforementioned Angel of Death allows the girl’s father, a yammering businessman selling his umpteen daughters to make ends meet, to slay Billy, but he pays the price of his hands (chink) for allowing his immoral prostitution ring.
In flies mamma vulture Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), catty as hell about her son’s death, but ready to use it to fast-track her hotel check-in. High-heeled and clinging to her evaporating youth, she looks something like a coke-addled Kim Craig crossed with an opulent Hamptons mom, with the viper tongue of a drug empire overseer. She gives Julian a waist-height hug just a little too close to fellatio, then slanders his masculinity for not having avenged Billy’s death. “Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl,” he protests. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” says coke mom. Julian refuses to seek vengeance, but Crystal (Meth Incarnate) sets the hit via a member of Julian’s posse anyway. Inevitably, Julian becomes implicated in a domino cascade of avenger and avenged throughout the slummy back corners of Bangkok.
Much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film, the polished Drive, Only God Forgives is all show, and not much tell. I enjoyed Drive on the first viewing, but on the second, its illusively-thick coating of neon fonts and an 80s electro-pop soundtrack melted away to reveal a movie with grand ambition, but few grand ideas to support it (albeit excellently-directed – it was so cathartic to see a car chase scene WITHOUT the steadfast accompaniment of a pulsing Lorne Balfe score). In Drive, at least, the last tatters of enigma were pent up behind those helplessly dopey-looking Gosling eyes of the reticent Driver character and his elusive motives.
In Only God Forgives, Julian isn’t taciturn, or even the least bit enigmatic. He’s mute: less character than caricature of Goslingian action hero physical flawlessness. There are a few outbursts, yes, but it’s mostly stoic, plasticine Gosling traipsing around the Thai underworld in a skin-tight white T-shirt. In fact, he only has 22 lines in the film. But the illusion of depth is smattered between them. The character gazes meditatively at his unfurling fist as he leans against a wall, with beams of light spread across his face. In one scene, he provokes a fistfight wearing a vest, tie and dress shoes. Now that’s logic. Only God Forgives is from the outset more style than substance, with Gosling as the crowd-pulling jewel glowing silently on Refn’s tawdry diamond ring.
Even the other actors tangled in Refn’s exhibition seem too brittle and constrained to enjoy themselves. Poised eternally in lurid heels, with hawkishly-long glitzy fingernails and a blonde wig, the usually-terrific Kristin Scott Thomas is poised also for the mother of all camp performances (Emma Thompson’s cynical mother witch in Beautiful Creatures comes to mind). She ashes a cigarette in her son’s manhood, denigrating the size of his penis and accusing his dinner date of cum dumpstery. But her performance inevitably comes across as cold, restrained and even, like all of the characters, inaccessible.
Incidentally, Refn’s interview with VICE Media (whose website, I might add, was plastered with OFG banners in the weeks preceding its release) from a few weeks ago bade more for bad news for the director’s motives. Interviewed by a sheepish Joel Madden soundalike, Refn’s musings had the same level of fridge magnet-worthy grandeur but childish emptiness (“science limits you”) that drives Only God Forgives. One quote in particular glued.
“I approach my films as a pin-up. It’s about what arouses me, and not so much about… I’m not a social, I’m not a political filmmaker. I don’t touch upon social issues.” (From about 7:30 in the podcast, which you’ll find here.)
Aside from the fact that Gosling looks like a pin-up, this might explain why Refn’s Bangkok, which is all regal reds and autumn yellows, or neon blues if you’re in a seedy enough place, is just a shimmering backdrop to the action, and never agenda. (There’s due credit to director of photography Larry Smith, who worked for Kubrick on The Shining – and some of the imagery here certainly evokes those haunting hotel corridors). Refn’s nonchalance towards social issues is contextualised in the cinematography which, much like the film, relegates all of these issues to scenery around which the plot is mobilised.
Various characters stroll along the proscenium of the shot as the camera frames them sideways, matching their stroll. Rarely does the camera dare venture into these settings, which teem with child sex trade, drug peddling, pad thai, murder, etc. The Angel of Death’s mutilations – and there are many – are perhaps the only part of the film where the camera deigns to a close-up. They’re meant to be a gasp-worthy and artful incarnation of emasculation, I’m sure. But ultimately, they’re unaffecting: just as much an ornamental part of the setting as the mannequin victims.
According to the interview, Refn’s garish arthouse imagery stands up not only on a strident message about the inherently cyclical and inexhaustible human desire for revenge – which itself is a precarious stand anyway. He believes that the (I’m going to say male) physicality is borne into inescapable violence and subdued into fantasy by law, with all human action conveniently reducible to the dual poles of violence and sexuality. The violence part is why there are so many clenched fists in Only God Forgives, you see. And that sexuality part might as well be why it’s also rife with lacklustre Oedipal motifs. We see Julian emotionally hurt by his mother’s barraging, yet driven by a desire to protect her. And just a short while later, in a last-ditch pledge to draw gasps, the apparent Freudian desire to re-enter the womb is actualised.
As you can see, Freudian tropes abound. But I doubt Refn has ever read a Freud book.
If Only God Forgives is anything to go by, he’s probably only touched the cover.
Now, where was that picture book?