By Adam Nayman
Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, France-Denmark, The Weinstein Company
Since itâ€™s a good bet that Nicolas Winding Refn has seen Lars von Trierâ€™s Antichrist (2009)â€”his father Anders edited it, after allâ€”itâ€™s likely that the ludicrous dedication that concludes his new feature, Only God Forgives, is at least partially intended as a shot against his countrymanâ€™s bow. Von Trier (in)famously flashed a card reading â€śfor Andrei Tarkovskyâ€ť at the conclusion of his genital-mutilating hootenanny, and the gesture was interpreted either as proof of its authorâ€™s cynicism or his cinephilia. As usual, von Trier was muddying the waters, which is one way to give shallows the impression of depth. The meanings of Refnâ€™s citation of Alejandro Jodorowsky on the credits for Only God Forgives, meanwhile, are crystal-clear. The invocation of the octogenarian Chilean icon is at once a game of auteurist one-upmanship with von Trier (who may yet respond by dedicating Nymph()maniac to Jess Franco, or maybe Wilt Chamberlain) and an act of self-congratulation disguised as loving homage. By name-checking the crazed maker of El Topo and The Holy Mountainâ€”movies whose productions were likened by Jodorowsky to the manufacturing of psychedelic tabletsâ€”Refn is really running his own freak flag up the pole for an earnest salute.
That banner, held so high in the gory Viking epic Valhalla Rising (2009), was only at half-mast for most of Drive (2011), which is probably why it proved so popular with audiences and critics. A self-willed shape-shifter whose dalliance with hardscrabble (if still brutally violent and dramatically overwrought) realism began and ended with the Pusher trilogy, Refn has since made a habit of inhabiting muscular genresâ€”the biopic/prison-flick hybrid of Bronson (2008); the neo-epic sweep of Risingâ€”and trying to explode bloodily through their surfaces. In Drive, Refn cunningly sublimated his more flamboyant tendencies in favor of a glistening minimalism; these faint frissons of finesse fooled more than a few smart reviewers into anointing this goony Dane as a standard-bearer for the ongoing hostile art-house/grind-house takeover.
Drive was enough of a hit that Refn didnâ€™t have to hedge his bets making the follow-up, and if Only God Forgives has anything going for it, itâ€™s that itâ€™s clearly the movie that its creator wanted to make. Of course, thatâ€™s also mostly whatâ€™s wrong with it: it turns out that Refnâ€™s sensibility, when so fully distilled, is purely and potently toxic. If the scene where retired Bangkok detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) tortures an informant by impaling metal chopsticks through his hands and feet before moving onto his orifices is meant to indicate the characterâ€™s ruthlessness in the pursuit of his goals, it winds up pulling double duty as an illustration of Refnâ€™s own overdetermined cruelty; that said sequence unfolds amidst a gaggle of demure Thai women whoâ€™ve been instructed to keep their eyes closed for the duration of the interrogation only cinches the preening aspect of the filmmaking. Refn is showing us repulsive things and then daring us to blink. Itâ€™s a game of chicken initiated by a coward whose discomfort with the things that go into really making cinemaâ€”like characters, a basic sense of drama, and an idea or two about the worldâ€”reduces him to shameless grandstanding.
Like pretty much everything in Only God Forgives, Chang is a clichĂ©. I defer to Kong Rithdeeâ€™s excellent observation in Cinema Scope that the characterâ€”who is introduced quite literally dis-arming a man who has murdered the man who raped and killed his daughterâ€”â€śunites [the] enchanting Asian duality of nihilism and tranquillity in a single figure,â€ť except that I donâ€™t find this trick any more compelling than the ciphers masquerading as symbolic archetypes in Drive. Artisans as varied as Guillermo del Toro and Michael Mann will attest to the usefulness of such blank yet familiar figures, who can pull their weight in narrative terms while also imparting a deeper sense of gravitas if theyâ€™re posed just so within the right seductive genre-movie environment: the only things that certain viewers like more than predictable characters and situations are predictable characters and situations tricked out as newerâ€”and recently, preferably artfully tarnishedâ€”models. In Drive, Ryan Goslingâ€™s (pointedly) nameless freelance wheelman did just enough (which is to say barely anything) to register as either a humorless lump or an enigmatic neo-knight-errant. Refnâ€™s refusal to build up anything of substance was taken by many as evidence that he had in fact successfully stripped something down to its vital, pulsing essence.
In exchange for actually getting a name in Only God Forgives, Gosling gives up about fifty percent of his dialogue from the earlier film: his Julian, an American expatriate who runs a Muay Thai boxing gym as a front for his familyâ€™s international drug-running operation, seems to have had his mute button jammed into place with a crowbar. Stoically overseeing the action at a tournament being held in his gym or silently inviting a prostitute to pleasure herself in one of the back rooms, heâ€™s a man of few words; when he learns that his older brother and partner-in-crime, Billy (Tom Burke), has been killed, he canâ€™t even muster up a response. His tight-lippedness is infuriating to his mother/underworld superior Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who blows into town hell-bent on avenging her first-bornâ€™s death and fills the awkward silences with her other son with an endless stream of invective. After inviting Julianâ€™s quasi-girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), to dinner, Crystal refers to her as a â€ścum dumpster,â€ť a moment which makes one wish that sheâ€”or maybe the posturing-writer-director feeding her linesâ€”would get with the program and shut up already.
Itâ€™s not that Only God Forgives is nastyâ€”itâ€™s that its nastiness doesnâ€™t point to anything except the attitude of the man behind the camera. As a statement about reckless Americans adrift in an exotic, dangerous paradise, the movie is at best redundant (â€śOne Night in Bangkokâ€ť got there first and rhymed â€śchess worldâ€ť with â€śYul Brynnerâ€ť besides) and at worst lazily racist: the locals are to a man scraggly malefactors (excepting Changâ€™s monkishly monstrousness tidiness) and to a woman meek, uncomprehending observers. The use of women as sculptural elements within a highly controlled mise-en-scĂ¨neâ€”carried over from Driveâ€™s egregious claw-hammer-and-hookers set-pieceâ€”recalls Kubrick as surely as the blood-red dĂ©cor of the various hotels and opium dens or the ominous industrial thrum of Cliff Martinezâ€™s score. But while it is probably unfair to compare a titan to such an obvious lightweight, the fact is that in, say, Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick visualizes Da Nang as a tawdry cesspool to contrast and contradict the gleaming sterility of Parris Island. The West and East are consciously and simultaneously stylized: for Refn, Bangkok is simply a grotty playground to stage his violent flights of fancy.
It would be miserly to deny the excellence of the lighting by cinematographer Larry Smith (who also worked on Eyes Wide Shut). The colors bleed across a wide spectrum of shades and tonesâ€”gritty dusks and muted dawnsâ€”and Refn does manage a few nice effects in collaboration with his usual editor, Matthew Newman: by placing the actors dead center in almost every frame and then cutting suddenly between medium-shots, the filmmakers create the impression of characters suddenly and subliminally switching places with one another. Itâ€™s a clever motif for a film that is on some (very low) level about karma and retribution, and which goes all in on a tit-for-tat rhythm that sees Chang and his crew execute each of Crystalâ€™s lieutenants in turn between unsuccessfully staged attempts on the old copâ€™s life. The only real suspense has to do with whether or not Julianâ€”whose reticence in the middle of what is basically all-out warfare seems a combination of fear and common senseâ€”will eventually join the fight, and in the only scene that wrings any sort of intriguing change on narrative formula, he proves to be a pretty lousy combatant. Watching Gosling get his ass handed to him by Pansringarm (whoâ€™s got a great stone face) is surprising in light of the actorâ€™s (increasingly silly) indestructibility in Drive, and it sets up the possibility that Only God Forgives will interrogate this well-tailored poseurâ€™s basic weakness. But, digging so deep into his barrel of punk-ass tactics that he scrapes the very bottom, Refn decides to pivot the movie on the characterâ€™s moral fiber: even after being beaten to a swollen pulp and taking up arms against the people whoâ€™ve decimated his clan, Julian is too much man to take a childâ€™s lifeâ€”and the filmmaker nudges us to applaud his staunchness.
Julian deserves a hand, but instead, he loses both of his: Only God Forgives concludes on a punitive exchange that is supposed to give everything thatâ€™s come before a thick gloss of honor (or something) but instead comes off as laughably pretentiousâ€”the faux-Zen detachment of these final passages is the directorial equivalent of one (cleanly severed) hand clapping. What truly separates Nicolas Winding Refn from, and subordinates him to, a true pop surrealist like Jodorowsky is his obvious vanity. Say what you will about El Topoâ€™s genuinely exploitative contents, but its peyote-flavored set pieces risk ridicule rather than simply stoking the audienceâ€™s bloodlust, and Jodorowskyâ€™s performance as a questing and finally self-immolating faux-Leone gunfighter is far ballsier than Refnâ€™s employment of the pinup-pretty Gosling as his onscreen surrogate. And it almost goes without saying that Jodorowsky is funnier; the only laughs to be had in Only God Forgives are at the filmâ€™s expense. El Topoâ€™s dusty old atrocity exhibition may be a Technicolor relic, but it at least begs the question of how well itâ€™s aged. Only God Forgives, meanwhile, will be forgotten by the time Refn makes another movieâ€”or at least, heâ€™d better hope so.