Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most diverse cinematic artists working today. You’d be hard pressed to find two movies as different as Bronson (a hallucinatory trip through the mind of a larger-than-life lunatic) and Drive (a gritty examination of violence and redemption featuring a quiet, compassionate tough guy), but both are undeniably the work of a consummate craftsman. Whether one of his films succeeds or fails, his is a creative voice well worth following.
I don’t know whether his latest effort, Only God Forgives, is any good, but I’m pretty sure I like it. It’s not difficult to see why it was booed at Cannes; Refn tackles some deliberately unsettling, challenging material. Whereas Drive weaves a naturalistic tale rooted in genuine human emotion, Only God Forgives dives headfirst into cold, sterile surrealism, often running the risk of drowning in its own allegories and metaphors. Much of the minimalistic plot is merely implied through color, framing, camera movement, and subtle gestures, with imagery so ambiguous that it becomes difficult to discern the “real" from the symbolic. The result is Ozu on acid, Beat Takeshi cranked up to eleven, a tug-of-war between art and exploitation that threatens to tear apart the very celluloid it’s printed on.
The story is a morally complex deconstruction of the revenge narrative. Following the death of his older brother, protagonist Julian, an American drug dealer living as an exile in Bangkok, is ordered by his cruel, tyrannical mother to eliminate the crooked-but-honorable cop responsible. Julian, however, hesitates: because the killing was an act of retaliation for the rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl, he believes that his brother earned his grisly fate. Despite these reservations, his mother’s constant, emasculating emotional abuse pushes him gradually, inexorably towards violence.
It would be easy to accuse Ryan Gosling of plagiarizing his own characterization of The Driver, but Julian’s stubborn inaction sets him apart. His taciturn nature is a facade, the fragile mask that conceals the delicate, submissive momma’s boy he truly is. Consider the frequent shots of his hands, constantly caught in the motion between open palm and closed fist, or the scene in which he allows a prostitute to tie his wrists to a chair, leaving him to watch silently as she pleasures herself. Consider his sudden outbursts of seemingly unmotivated aggression, which almost invariably follow a particularly severe browbeating session. Refn takes the theme too far in the film’s final frames, which depict Julian literally trying to retreat back into his mother’s womb, but the climactic fistfight—our tortured hero’s last desperate attempt to reclaim his shattered masculinity—is lusciously choreographed, Leone-esque visual poetry.
I can’t say for sure whether these various scattered pieces add up to a coherent whole… but, God, what gorgeous, hypnotic little fragments!
[Originally written July 21, 2013.]