Whilst on the train home after seeing Only God Forgives in a cinema miles from where I live (it was the only place still showing it this late in the month), I was at a loss as to how I felt about Refn’s most recent work, that has alienated and angered audiences and critics alike. After much deliberation (was I missing the point? Did I secretly love it? Did I despise it?), I was left dazed and asking the question: is it too much to ask to want a film to make you feel something? The answer to this question led me to my three star rating and to this review.
I felt nothing during this film, the second neon-drenched fairytale from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn starring Ryan Gosling (who appears this time with a name, Julian, but with less personality). I felt no sadness, happiness, fear, confusion, or anger. I simply watched the images slide unhurriedly across the screen. I watched Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas’ icy blue eyes stare out piercingly, and I watched the blood pour from men’s faces and bodies as they were beaten with frying pans and stabbed with hair pins. The story, like with Drive, is a simple one. A brother dies, a mother arrives, and a son takes revenge. However, Refn’s heavy handling of Freudian symbolism, suggesting throughout that Julian has some sort of Oedipus Complex, is meant to turn this postmodern tale of family loyalty and revenge into a stylised parable of sorts. Set in Bangkok, the director, and cinematographer Larry Smith, capture a city asphyxiated by its own thick shadows and vivid lights. Here, in a world where men live by archaic laws and women are only either dolls or monsters, each figure lives off of lurid, artificial glares. When we watch Crystal (Julian’s mother, played by a terrifyingly manic Thomas) walk out onto a balcony and into the smoggy light of morning, she looks grey. It’s when we see her in the evening, sat at a table or on a bed bathed in blue, green or red that her kohl-lined eyes become impossible to look away from. Like the eyes of the dragon in the poster, there is something at once beautiful and sickeningly overpowering about them. And yet this striking aesthetic that the film feeds its audience, even when paired with provocative symbolism, wasn’t enough to win me over.
When asked recently about his approach to the film in an interview with The Skinny, Refn was quoted as saying “I needed to destroy everything I’d built in order to recreate everything again.” He wished to “go away and explode” the so-called Drive formula that had gifted him with so much commercial and critical success. I admire his bravery. This is so obviously a film designed to unsettle, to uproot, to perplex. Its choppy editing means that its pace is ultimately disorientating, with already-odd sex scenes interrupted by dream sequences and slow-motion, threatening zooms towards doors at the end of wallpapered hallways (which to me had a distinctly The Shining feel). Violence is coupled with peculiarity, as in one scene an assemblage of Thai girls sit silently, dressed like China-dolls with bows in their hair, whilst a man has his eyes cut in to. The script leaves something to be desired, with Gosling uttering only a paragraph’s worth of lines, and the other memorable dialogue coming only in the form of deliberately stereotypical law-and-punishment talk from Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police officer who takes up the role of Angel of Vengeance, and thereby the Superego (if adhering to Freudian theory as so many reviewers have tended to do). It is easy to see why the film has elicited such violently negative reactions.
However, I have never been one to dislike a movie simply because it is atypical. Sometimes the “slowest” films are the most affecting, and, as proved by David Lynch amongst others, films can be so totally and completely offbeat and still be the definition of brilliance. Refn even demonstrated with his last film that dialogue is not the be-all and end-all of character and story development. So what is it about Only God Forgives that does not quite click into place? Perhaps it is the unoriginal treatment of women: the tiresome “evil mother” figure set against the silent prostitute (played by the brilliant Yayaying Rhatha Phongam who manages to pack more meaning into a single look than anyone else in the film), although if I named that as a personal criticism of mine I would be lying. The men of the film are just as two-dimensional and underdeveloped. Perhaps then it’s the fact that such explicit, very realistic violence is carried out by and inflicted upon such unrealistic, overly-stylised characters. Style is vital in this work, and at the risk of sounding like I’m lumping together two very different Asian countries, the tone of the film and the way it played out was reminiscent to me of Japanese Kabuki Theatre. Julian moves around slowly and deliberately, often randomly positioning his fists in front of him to create what could be compared to a mie. The fight between himself and Chang at the boxing club is like a dance, movements are practiced and slight, to the extent where it seems surprising that Julian could be hurt from it all. And Crystal’s face under the coloured lights of restaurants or bars looks distinctly painted and illusory. Is this why people have found the film so offensive? Is the sudden violence out of place? All I know is that somewhere along the way, perhaps whilst striving for hyper-stylistic perfection, Refn completely cut me off from the film emotionally.
So why three stars and not lower, then, if I didn’t connect to it? Because, despite not feeling emotionally attached to any of the characters, it made me think so intensely about film and its messages. Yes, the Freudian content can wear a little thin. Oh, look, there are some men’s hands being cut off and going inside women’s bodies in subversive manners, because we all know what they represent. However, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that has revived such antiquated theories so boldly and that has presented them so unashamedly. I can’t deny the beauty of the film. Each shot is like a work of art, a snapshot of a claustrophobic underworld populated by demons and dolls. Pansringarm is hauntingly dreamlike as the judge, jury and executioner of the city, and even though his character is basic, the image of his stern face will remain with me for a long time. At various points throughout the film, he takes to the stage of a karaoke bar to sing to his fellow police officers. His songs are tacky, over-synthesised and lyrically stale, and yet the performances are inexplicably engaging. Chang sings them ever so seriously to his audience who stare ever so seriously back at him. Part of me is not sure whether this a reflection of the film itself, as we viewers scramble so seriously to decipher such a bizarre work of cinema, and are left ultimately in stunned silence with nothing but Crystal’s line “I’m sure he had his reasons”.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★