Nicholas Winding Refn is an interesting guy. He wakes up one morning, takes a shower, and decides to make a movie about fingering. And he does it – he makes a gorgeous, glorious, meditative, profoundly philosophical movie about fingering.
Only God Forgives is Refn at his creative peak, it’s not just the most stylish and visually hypnotic film of the year but also a Katana blade swipe into the rules of filmmaking. The characters in this film don’t behave the way humans in a movie should. It’s not a silent film but they don’t have dialogues. They neither act, nor react, nor express much. They’re more of a ‘presence’, immersed into the rich dark red neon sprayed textures of the tapestry around them. They don’t even walk much, and when they do they inch ahead in slow motion. In fact the only time they don’t sit around is when they slash people’s arms and necks off. This is Refn gleefully raising Cain with his slow burn indulgence, yet astonishingly, not a second of his film feels sluggish. The effect is actually quite the opposite – you’re thrilled by the sheer intensity of the film because each scene is wolfed down by the next, even more intense one.
This is a very different Refn from the guy who made the 1995 classic Pusher. That film was a stripped down crime thriller that made use of natural light and locations, bereft of any special effects and even music. The technique was called the Dogme manifesto, a style that was introduced by Refn and his Scandinavian filmmaker pals Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to rebel against the mainstream film tropes and clichés. Refn never did take the commercial route but he did begin extensively using special effects to heighten the atmosphere in his films. His Bronson had goofy comedy and horror relayed with dreamlike sequences while Valhalla Rising was a nightmare through hell with extensive CGI blood.
While last year’s Drive acquainted us with the mute, bottled down antihero with the angelic face of Ryan Gosling, Only God Forgives is closer to Valhalla Rising in tone and execution. It’s not just abstract reality but a fetish film made with dynamic conviction. The real and surreal are nearly impossible to decipher here, and the Yakuza sword wielding villain (Vithaya Pansringarm) often vacillates between a God and the Devil. Pansringarm doesn’t have lines but is terrific as a cop who respects the sanctity of justice but defies the law and chops people's arms off to maintain justice and ethics, a character which clearly reflects upon Refn’s approach to the laws binding cinema. Refn in the past has often delved into the lack of clarity of what is perceived as amoral by society, and here he has transformed into an utter beast of a technician to explicate the balance of integrity, the absolution of guilt and the misguided necessity of the law. The only way he could deal with the frustration of not getting any answers to the existentialist mysteries of life was by fantasizing of having a kickboxing match with God, and that is exactly what we get to see in this film.
While it is many things, Only God Forgives is mainly about the Oedipal issues of Ryan Gosling’s character, whose mother is played to barn burning excellence by Kristin Scott Thomas. She flips on the bitch switch so hard in one instance she even calls Gosling’s beautiful girlfriend a ‘cum dumpster’. Thomas gets the bulk of the lines but the other characters are juxtaposed to Cliff Martinez’s mystical, infectious score that gets the Thailand set Muay Thai atmosphere down to pat. The musical cue ‘Wanna fight’ that kicks in during Gosling and Pansringarm’s brutal brawl is a truly great modern cinema moment. It’s fine that Refn decided to ditch Dogme, because he’s certainly doing a hell of a job picking moody music for his set pieces.
He'd been sculpting it all these years but Refn has finally perfected his own style of filmmaking, Menthol Noir. Unlike the Malicks and the Lynches his indulgence is action packed, constantly energetic and entertaining rather than a patience testing arthouse grind. He approaches violence like sexuality and considers a film as a build up to a climax. He calls himself a pornographer that way, and considering his films’ elegant balance of violence, sex and ideology he’s a damned good one. What he is extremely gifted at, however, is the way he makes murder look beautiful and stylish, quite like his Korean colleagues and the Coens from the 90’s.
(First published in DNA)