When I learned that Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film would be set in Bangkok and include martial arts, drugs, and extreme violence, I was disheartened. It seemed that Refn was reaching for a larger audience, with material for which I have no interest at all. I make no claim of expertise on Asian action cinema, but my sense is that there is far too much of it, with very little of distinction (my friend Tony Williams, who has expertise indeed and work of some distinction, will disagree). I have found exceptions, such as the Iron Man/Tetsuo films (not to be confused with the comic book character) of Shinya Tsukamoto, Miike’s Audition and Visitor Q (although not much else from him, who shares far too much in common with Tarantino and his ilk), and the Battle Royale films, with their intelligent comments on capitalism, the education system, and the so-called War on Terror. I should also mention Pieta, the recent film by Kim Ki-duk, a remarkable work about family, guilt, and the consequences of capitalism in South Korea. I have seen more than that, but nothing anywhere near the order of Ozu and Mizoguchi, or the much more Westernized Kurosawa, which may be a ludicrous comparison and expectation given the nature of the new international industry.
Only God Forgives might be argued as a comment on Asian action film rather than a mere replication of it, but even if one reads it that way, I don’t see much value to the film, and view it as a misjudgment on Refn’s part – I hope it does not simply reveal an adolescent sensibility. The film captures the iciness, the deadening of affect, of postmodern capitalist civilization, but hasn’t this been accomplished? The very long takes, the deeply saturated color, the lack of dialogue, the slow physical movements of actors, the mannered style overall take the film outside of dramatic realism, but to what purpose? The credits thank Alejandro Jodorowsky (who created the midnight film with El Topo and The Holy Mountain, today interesting for their surrealist heritage, but certainly not their Jungian/mystical preoccupations) and Gaspar Noé (his Seul contre tous, Irreversible, and Enter the Void were all unfairly dismissed by reviewers, but questions remain for me about his aims and temperament – time will tell), although for me the dominant influences are Kubrick and David Lynch, Kubrick for his lack of empathy, slow tracking shots, and pervasive paranoia (especially by Eyes Wide Shut), Lynch for his “quirkiness” (a word I despise, so often meaningless, which Lynch seems to have bolstered in the lexicon, embodied in oddball characters and set pieces) best represented here in Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) castrating bitch mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), who has incestuous desires for her sons, describes their cocks to a young woman in a very Lynchian dinner table scene with halting one-line dialogue burps, and says Julian killed the absent father. Lynch had some promise at the time of Blue Velvet, coming as it did during Reaganism, but what can one say about his morality and politics, and the obscurantism of his later films, aside from their value as graphic art? The basic problem is, therefore, another film by one of the new movie brats, a film about other films (the title recalls the archness of Italian Westerns, another required ingredient these days), with little to say about the world in which we live, nor authentic comment on the art of the past.
My sense is that whatever value Only God Forgives has may reside in its status as a series of art installations. The prolonged bloodbaths and more prosaic scenes, such as Crystal’s arrival in daylight at a postmodern hotel (I wish Refn had attended to Arthur Cravan’s admonition “mystery in broad daylight,” that his helper Jodorowsky, an admirer of Cravan, should have mentioned it to him – the film is shot almost totally at night), have the aspect of presentation, not in any Brechtian sense, but as figures one might see at a gallery. Blood-spattered walls, garish furniture, human beings as smashed odalisques are not unreasonable correlates for this current civilization (although again, where have we indeed seen these before, and in pretty much the same mode of expression?). But how and why they come about raises problems about the film’s ambitions.
There is no need to rehearse what goes on here. Julian runs a boxing club and sells drugs. His crazy big brother rapes and kills a young prostitute. The girl’s father beats the brother’s skull in. The local avenging angel/crime boss/top cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) starts to kill people, but Julian doesn’t himself exact proper revenge. Crystal arrives to browbeat Julian. Eventually everyone but the avenging angel is dead. It is disturbing that the film depends so much on the Exotic Orient, a place where bloody evil threatens to pop out at any moment, and that Refn should have the avenging angel also sing plangent songs in a night club between executions, to show the irony of his double nature, his spiritual yearnings, the brute’s perception of the fragility of existence, or to mimic Dean Stockwell’s gay villain in Blue Velvet.
The only material of marginal dramatic interest in this film is the mother/son relationship, which some reviewers have termed “Oedipal,” despite the fact that there is vanishingly little evidence of the Oedipal construct here beyond the sexual desire, such as it is, of Crystal and her questionable remark (since she accuses her son basically of impotence) about the murder of the father. One might say that Crystal and her sons continue the Oedipal trajectory in some form, but it is hard for me to construct an argument justifying such a reading. She is castrating in her humiliation of Julian, who responds, after her murder by the avenging angel, by stabbing her in the lower abdomen/uterus, then placing his hand inside her body, as if he wants to regress to a primal moment, having accepted his diminution by her – at one point she promises to return to mothering him, but there is no indication if he receives this news positively or otherwise.
There has been discussion of Kristen Scott Thomas’s acceptance of this unusual role, given the part’s hyperbole. Crystal has long blond tresses and overdone makeup, but if she is meant to embody some form of the ugly American, my only response is that she seems prosaic, no more vulgar than any number of people in my own neighborhood. But if she is merely representative, what, again, is the point? What makes her a villain, aside from her apparent wealth and coarse language? She is bad because sexualized, the worst offense a woman can commit. But she is no Fatal Woman because she hardly exists as a character.
The offensive point, to me, is the brutal treatment throughout this film of women. True, men have their eyes gouged in close-up and their limbs chopped off (one scene, taken I think from Sanjuro, has the avenging angel disembowel a man with one upstroke of his sword), but whatever moral judgment there is in the film is focused on the destruction of the female. Women are marginal to the narrative except as images of temptation or corruption. One fully expects to see Crystal brought low in the goriest possible manner, most especially for speaking of her sons’ penises. The brothel whores are subjects for spectacle and cruelty, despite the alleged moral code causing their tormentors to be dispatched.
I have little more to say, not because I feel drained by the film, but because it is, at best, a tone poem, or something with this aspiration. I saw Only God Forgives once, and I distrust commenting on a film with only one screening (which is why I rather dislike reviewing in general), but I doubt that I will revisit this film anytime in the near future, and I felt a need to comment on Refn given passed achievement, which is now diminished for me. I must say at this stage that up-close, gory screen violence has no interest for me, and has become offensive, mainly because there is absolutely no dramatic point to it in most current cinema. Sam Peckinpah, who taught filmmakers the purpose of rendering explicit violence on screen, was one of the cinema’s great moralists, certainly one of its great dramatists, whose time and purpose now seem very remote. His name is regularly invoked, but his ambitions are evidenced almost nowhere.
Ryan Gosling appears to be the last of the strong, silent types, almost to a fault here, especially because we are asked to entertain the idea that his character is actually docile. His onscreen presence is always impressive, but recently he has been more thoughtfully used in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines.
The man who made the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder, Valhalla Rising, and Drive may have simply taken a misstep with this film. Or he may have shown his true colors as a vacuous pragmatist hoping for a leg up in the industry (I doubt that he will succeed, given this film’s affectations). One hopes that he will question himself, and perhaps step away from genre – but I understand he wants to remake Barbarella.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International.