By Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where we actually do wanna fight, thank you very much.
THE FILM: Only God Forgives
THE YEAR: 2013, two years after Nicolas Winding Refn knocked the art house on its ass with Drive and a year before Ryan Gosling tried to do the same with utterly perplexing Lost River.
RECOLLECTIONS: There is a clockwork rhythm to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, an inaudible tick tick tick that permeates its neon-soaked corridors and blood-drenched alleyways. It paces itself like a revenge-minded western contained within a hyper-violent chamber of horrors, and methodically mounts its tension while maintaining the chilly arms-length distance of a Kubrick film. There’s a formula to be found in there somewhere. Mired in a swamp of amplified dread, one can’t dodge the feeling that its mercifully swift 90 minute runtime feels more like a countdown. Tick tick tick. The film in effect becomes a time bomb, with a fallout that is as much synthetic as it is cathartic.
It’s too severe to be taken lightly, and too preposterous to be taken literally. Nicolas Winding Refn’s dreamlike comings and goings are filmed at a slow, steady clip (by Larry Smith, who shot Refn’s Bronson), allowing the viewer plenty of time to consider the fixed gaze of his muse Ryan Gosling, but the long stretches of silent visuals also give the viewer ample time to consider their navels in between its hateful bloodletting. It’s those trying moments between orgiastic bursts of violence that make Only God Forgives feel almost pornographic. It is equal parts tantalizing and repellent.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a jaw-clenching U.S. expatriate dwelling in Bangkok, overseeing a muay thai fight club with older brother Billy (Tom Burke), a simmering degenerate whose unspecified years immersed in the scaly belly of Bangkok’s underworld have finally wound him tight enough to snap. Julian too seems right at home in the violent, grim reality Refn brings out of this Bangkok, casually circumventing the distribution of illicit drugs and indulging in late-night dalliances with prostitute girlfriend Mai (Rhatha Phongam), though his hands-off approach to sexual fulfillment suggests an angst that has long festered at the bottom of his psyche. Something awful brought Julian and Billy here; Billy’s wrathful exercises in nighttime abandon infer a murderous guilt that can only be absolved by blood.
It takes one bad, drunken night for Billy to finally indulge his bloodlust, which marks the inciting incident that kicks off this surreal melodrama: after a brutal and fatal attack on an underage prostitute, Billy meets an orchestrated end by the righteous Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, the film’s MVP), a cruel yet benevolent crusader of a more ancient form of justice.
Chang is an astute soul who is as adept at removing limbs from his quarry as he is belting out some choice tunes at his favorite karaoke bar. (Performing his own action sequences and musical numbers, Pansringarm lends authenticity to a film that doesn’t wholly deserve it.) Though it’s not Chang’s hands that did Billy in, Julian’s extraordinarily volatile mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in from the States to ensure that old-fashioned retribution is done. What follows is the familiar inevitability of a classic revenge flick, with all the butchery that goes with it. Luckily, Nicolas Refn makes it all look so damn good.
THE DIRECTOR: With the director’s reliably gorgeous compositions framing a filthy, bleak world, Nicolas Winding Refn’s visually soothing and morally abhorrent project with two-time collaborator Ryan Gosling feels very much like what would happen if Wong Kar-wai made a horror film. Or perhaps Refn’s heightened fever dream of heavy reds and sizzling fluorescent favors 90s-era David Lynch. It’s not hard to imagine this visceral reality unspooling from the mind that wrought the sinister violence and raw sexuality of Lost Highway. Its thematic second cousin might have been Lynch’s Wild At Heart, had Refn allowed his film to be as absurd as it needed to be.
Instead Refn — who is rarely to be seen without his signature tailored suit and pencil-thin tie — keeps his mercifully short film as meticulously clipped and joyless as possible (most scenes were edited immediately after filming wrapped each day). His long, loving shots of Gosling doing his best Steve McQueen impersonation seem to infer a level of wish fulfilment on the part of the Danish filmmaker — he frames Gosling seething and flexing far more candidly than he ever did in Drive — and if there was anything to be gleaned from Only God Forgives, it would be that this is how Refn thinks masculinity should be. Which only begins to make more sense when you realize that the few who truly love this film often keep it close to their conspicuously dust-free copies of Fight Club and American Psycho. There’s a type who idolize this level of sterilized masculinity, and Refn is most certainly of that type.
THE CAST: The screenplay (also written by Refn) doesn’t call on Ryan Gosling to contribute much more than his typical Drive glowering, and his pensive scowl rarely wavers enough to let the viewer in on Julian’s plight. Maybe that’s for the best; Julian’s character might be just as deranged as his murderous brother — his demented visions of Pansringarm’s Lt. Chang seem to come to him by way of either clairvoyance or unsettling hallucinations. Either way, Julian’s nigh-supernatural reveries give the film an added inevitability, punctuated by Julian’s erratic bursts of violence and a penchant for humiliating women. All this makes him appear as sordid as his brother, and possibly just as deserving of Chang’s justified vengeance.
The tonal imbalance between Gosling and Pansringarm’s stiff upper-lipped resolve and Kristin Scott Thomas’… er, ostentatious performance only damns Only God Forgives further. We can accept a character like Crystal, a monolithic mafioso mama who channels both Robert De Niro’s Al Capone and Donatella Versace in equal measure, but Thomas doesn’t so much inhabit the role as she clumsily fumbles it. It’s a ham of a performance, more of an opportunity for the late-career actress to utter such charming colloquialisms as “cunt” and “cum dumpster.” It’s a role that should bolster the film. Instead she nearly sinks it.
Vithaya Pansringarm fares much better. (His karaoke sequences are a supreme show-stopper). Wielding a samurai blade so sharp it could probably carve an electron off an atom, his Lt. Chang is the grimmest of reapers who finds a natural balance between a normal family life and murderous vengeance. He is so effective in the role, it’s impossible not to root for his success in this lurid vendetta. Because of Pansringarm, the ticking time bomb of Only God Forgives barely reaches its detonation point, avoiding its own diffusion by seconds.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a perplexing study of… I’m still not sure. View it in all its lurid entirety just the once. Walk out of parties where it’s screened without its killer soundtrack.
RETROGRADE: 5.5 out of 10