Maybe my best shot at writing an entertaining review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives would simply be to string together selected extracts from other writers. Taking the top prize, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere says the film: “is world-class in its repulsiveness, and it goes way beyond being a time-waster. The fumes from this oppressively violent Asian macho (BS) sword-slicing fantasy will sink into your system and your soul and leave you off-kilter — tainted in ways that may be hard to pinpoint at first but are no less real — for weeks after seeing it. Or months. Or eternally.” Rex Reed judges it “may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five” (you have to love that “unquestionably”). Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail says “it’s a movie to be endured as it revels in stupidity and then, predictably, seems depressed about it.” Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice thinks the film “bobs along on a bloody current of silliness,” and that.” Refn may be taking himself too seriously or not taking anything seriously enough-- it's hard to tell.” There’s plenty more where all that came from.
Only God Forgives
What most of these dismissals have in common though is a sense of ambivalence – that if the director is being a jerk, it’s not in the disposable, roll-your-eyes-and-move-on manner of other action movie jerks. If Wells were really telling the truth (even allowing for poetic license) that something about the film will taint your sensibility for a prolonged period afterwards, well, that would be an achievement of sorts, wouldn’t it? I experienced some variation on this myself: for the first half or so of the movie, I was mentally writing my own scathing review of it; then over the second half the review got steadily better; then in thinking about it and making some notes afterwards, it got significantly better.
The film stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, an American living in Thailand, where he and his brother Billy are both involved in shady kick-boxing rings (or something like that) and other morally grimy activity. Billy loses it cataclysmically, and murders a young whore; he’s murdered in vengeance, and when their mother Crystal arrives to collect the body, she insists that Julian in turn knock off his killers. The film is quite short – only an hour and a half – and contains little dialogue; as you’ve probably gleaned, it could be perceived as little more than a series of killings and maimings, linked only by the thinnest of connective material.
Actually, that absence is key to the film’s odd, troubling affect; Refn leaves out almost all the plotting and interaction and “colour” that would normally attend even a basic exploitation narrative, structuring his film as a series of formal encounters, framed and paced to emphasize their disconnection from conventional concepts of morality or motivation (this applies as much to the few scenes of relatively extended conversation as to the killing and maiming). There’s no attempt to explain how people locate each other, or get from A to B – there’s nothing more to them, in effect, than their structural imperatives. Refn often accentuates this by playing with the editing in a way that confuses our sense of who is where; at times it feels like the movie might be taking place less on earth than in one of those inexplicable zones that wind through the narrative of David Lynch movies.
What’s most striking about this approach is how it serves to accentuate the profound lack of moral clarity, at least compared against our usual reference points. Early on, the brother tries to buy another man’s daughter, sight unseen; the other turns him down, but what’s chilling is the matter-of-fact way he does it, as if such a transgressive offer is just the usual course of business. And indeed it is, on both sides: Julian and Crystal’s relationship in particular is heavy with incestuous undertones, boundary crossings and unresolved past traumas. There’s still a sense of right and wrong – Julian crosses his mother by drawing some lines he won’t cross, and a couple of the film’s most piercing moments simply involve children in peril, staring into the face of danger, suggesting not necessarily purity, but at least a distance from the wretched morass created by adults. But for the most part, the film bears out the implication of its title: in the absence of God’s intervention, people keep going in cycles of action and counter-action, applying their own concepts of relative mercy or righteousness or proportionality, creating potentially endless chains of consequence, without reference to any external notions of law or equilibrium.
It’s weirdly appropriate then that the film’s last scene is an extended scene of one of its main perpetrators singing karaoke to a respectful audience; a further contribution to keeping us off balance, while extending the sense of disembodied performance, of artifice disconnected from substance. So stepping back from all of this, I end up finding the film quite aesthetically coherent, in a way that constitutes something of an advance on Refn’s last film Drive (which operated more like a splashy art installation). But is that the same as saying it’s actually good? Even if you accept everything I’ve just said – and obviously, many would laugh (or retch) at me as loudly as they did at the movie – what does that amount to, in the relative scheme of things? Well, at least a bit more than you might think.
He had his reasons
Too many movies explore glamorously distorted, grotesque visions of darkness, and Refn’s artistic candour is somewhat refreshing. In an interview with the UK Observer, he said he "got a lot more conservative about violent entertainment since having children," but when pressed on the point went on: “It's like pornography. I'm a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I've learned not to become obsessed with that part of it.” Which sums up the moral abdication I described. It’s expressed in the film too: when she’s told what her dead son did to the young girl, Crystal’s only response is: “He must have had his reasons.” It’s a chilling rejection of any responsibility toward anything other than the intuitive demands of one’s own blood, but only somewhat overstated as an expression of the tribalism that drives politics, or patriotism, or ridiculous social values, and allows rationalizing any kinds of wrongs in the name of those virtues (George Zimmerman had his reasons regarding Trayvon Martin, or so the verdict tells us). I’m sure Refn would disclaim any intended parallel in this regard – but that’s why Only God Forgives is so strangely powerful: it’s not what it says or expresses, it’s what it embodies.