Only God Forgives, it says, and I’m not about to compete with him. Yet, it is my understanding that after the screening of this film at Cannes in May, once the booing subsided, God could not be found for comment. But who has ever seen him anywhere near the Cannes Film Festival? I’m sure he was up in the fragrant hills in a hammock. Why drag him into this odious and meretricious stupor?
Far more sensible to start with the writer-director, Nicolas Winding Refn, and his star, Ryan Gosling. A couple of years ago, there was much talk about their collaboration on a glittery, nasty but impressive piece of work called Drive. For about half the time, that film was a sharp, icy thriller, offset by a barely spoken affection between Gosling and the character played by Carey Mulligan. In the second half, it plunged into violence as if it had always known it had nowhere else to go, and let it be so horrible you had to sense an adolescent urge to shock on the part of Refn.
One allure of Drive was its pastiche authenticity. This grim story was taking place in a recognizable, if unfashionable, Los Angeles. The driving depended on what a skilled person could do with an automobile. One of the killers seemed to know how to dispose of someone quickly in an elevator (without putting the facility out of service). But the picture wasn’t realistic; it was a fantasy. Like so many endearing American movies, it endowed the fantasy with every attribute of grittiness it could think of. This is a fallacy that goes back at least as far as the Actors Studio, with its hope that naturalism would make for truth, not just histrionics, and I suspect Gosling and the others felt they were in pursuit of the real thing (truth even) instead of dressing a dream.
The ghosts in Only God Forgives believe they are in Bangkok. But Eyes Wide Shut thought it was depicting New York, if you recall. Apparently, the unit went to Bangkok; there are street scenes at night; subtitles are required here and there. The interiors are drenched in exotic red. But this is the Bangkok of comic-book back-drops and the subtext in that Anglicized name—a commercialized place that has swamped the authenticity of Thailand. The origins of “Bangkok” are obscure enough to let one believe tourist optimism was an impetus in sweeping aside the old Thai name. Similarly, the film’s “Bangkok” aspires to decadent atmosphere, not urban renewal.
It’s a place where families have problems. Take the Thompsons: I am not inventing this surname, but neither is it intelligence gleaned from the screen. The publicity synopsis says they are Thompsons, a family with issues like those the world over. Julian (in the passive, beautiful form of Ryan Gosling) is doing his best to maintain a boxing club as a front for an international narcotics business. Then his brother Billy kills a man who raped and murdered an underage girl (she was a prostitute—“Bangkok,” you see). In turn, Billy is slaughtered by the girl’s father. That’s only half the problem. What really gets under Julian’s skin is Mom, who comes to town wondering why in hell Julian hasn’t yet sought revenge?
My guess is that Julian is on a mission to say and think as little as possible. Offered the chance of vengeance, he prefers to gaze at the camera that is gazing at him. Perhaps it takes his mind off Mom. It’s hard even for an international drug-dealer to have Kristin Scott Thomas in a blond wig and slutty clothes as his mother. Ms Thomas (a moderately sophisticated actress) seems to be concentrating on not cracking up—as in laughing at such nonsense—so she’s not much help. Sooner or later, the twin icons of this film and its crackpot ideology—the blade and the blood—are going to have to meet. And though Julian says very little, the blades talk.
If you’ve ever dreamed of “Bangkok” and comic-book violence, you can sketch this movie. I will retreat into the politeness of not wanting to spoil the story for you by drawing the line here. The good news is that it’s only 90 minutes.
Instead, let me pursue another line of thought. Nicolas Winding Refn is Danish and 43. He is married, and the couple have two daughters. I don’t mean to be accusatory, but I suspect they take good care of them. He is very talented and capable of intense flights of imagined violence. If in doubt, see his Bronson (2009), in which Tom Hardy plays a brute further brutalized by a life in prison. I daresay, if your calling is to make endless movies about extreme violence, topping yourself in ingenuity and pure cinematic expression, Nicolas Winding Refn is a delightful fellow.
There is a promotional video, filmed at Cannes earlier this year, in which he tells the camera that, no, he has never been involved in a fight, let alone what you might call violence. Indeed, he cannot imagine anyone who hates violence more than he does. The very idea leaves him speechless, which, as you’ll recall, is close to Julian’s way of life. You grieve for Refn: that a decent Danish fellow, albeit raised in New York, should be put in a position where he has to make film after film about imaginable violence. I say “imaginable” because clearly he has no direct knowledge of the real thing, and lives under the curse of having to invent it for the rest of time (as if it were Bangkok).
Now, it has always been a vital part of cinema that the medium allows us to realize and survey things we have not encountered in life (yet) and which we are probably afraid of: sumptuous car crashes, perilous beauties of torture, suitcases packed with money, the extinction of the world—all those things are served by the circumstances of a bright, nearly inhabitable screen, with us in the waiting room of the dark. Beneath that range of topics there is the trinity we know as sex, violence, and death—ideally with the three as one. Refn is not alone in his fixations; such figures as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese are connoisseurs in a screen violence that relates to their real lives only in that they have never lived any of it.
So it comes to this: Refn is a very talented film-maker; Only God Forgives is a deliriously pretty film; Ryan Gosling was made to say as little as possible in the face of disaster; Kristin Scott Thomas needs a brisk talking to from the Charlotte Rampling who is now Dexter’s shrink.
This is a ludicrous, showy film, and we are left to reconcile those two antagonistic qualities, or get out. The picture is already famous for its “walk outs” (people quitting before the film is over), but that only raises the more testing question of why we walked in. The movies have a creative role in letting us begin to inhabit experiences we have not had: That is the pulse of erotic cinema. But that erotica relied on constraints and censorship. Nowadays, the casual feast known as porn has exhausted the imagination. But violence remains alive as a passion, and a drive that shapes us. On screens, it has become a source of connoisseurship and our detachment. Fascism has always understood that trick with cruelty.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.