Why do I have the feeling that “Drive” is going to turn out to be the rare semi-commercial hiccup in the larger filmography of Nicolas Winding Refn?
Refn’s identity as a filmmaker has been coming into gradual focus for the past seventeen years, but when you read pretty much anything written about his new film, “Only God Forgives,” it seems to exist only in contrast to “Drive” and nothing else in Refn’s entire career. The truth is that from “Pusher” on, Refn is a guy who is driven by some very particular and identifiable fetishes, a guy who has alway seemed to have a strong aesthetic voice but a marked disinterest in narrative. He paints with violence, and he does not seem particularly interested in over-explanation or in traditional ideas of character. “Drive” struck a nerve with many audiences, people who may not have seen any of the “Pusher” films or “Bleeder” or “Valhalla Rising” or “Bronson,” people who have no sense of the almost relentless nature of the brutality of those films. “Only God Forgives” fits neatly into a list of the things he’s made. “Drive” is the anomaly, not the standard by which to judge the rest of his work.
Over the course of the three “Pusher” films, Refn dealt with three different players in the drug trade, shifting perspective from film to film, from Kim Bodina to Madds Mikkelsen to Zlatko Buric. “Bleeder” paired Bodina and Mikkelsen in a punishing exploration of one guy’s failing grip on his own ideal of masculinity. “Fear X” shows a command of his craft even if he couldn’t really work out how to handle a frustrating puzzle box of a script. And “Bronson”… well, “Bronson” is the film I consider the real key to Refn, not “Drive.” In “Bronson,” he takes a true story about an anti-social psychopath whose one skill in life appears to be horrifyingly violent assault, and he turns it into a sort of dreamscape tour, as much meditation as celebration, a fantasia and a freakshow, totally uninterested in anything like a typical story or structure or even character study.
Set into this context, “Only God Forgives” makes perfect sense. Does that make it “good”? I’m not sure Refn cares. He does not seem to make movies with an audience in mind except, perhaps, as a target for him to hit with whatever new weapon has caught his eye. Refn doesn’t really build characters. He instead populates these seedy, surreal worlds of his with contemptible bags of meat, all impulse and action and feral self-preservation, and then he spins them all into contact with one another just to see what happens. In this case, we meet Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke), and within ten minutes of the film starting, Billy takes an underage prostitute into a room and savages her in a way that is truly upsetting. When her father is shown the crime scene by a cold-blooded cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), he is given permission to do whatever he needs to do, and he butchers Billy. By this point in the film, even the strongest of stomachs will be tested by how Refn wallows in the grisly detail of it all, and the film is still just revving up at this point.
A cycle of violence is set in motion by these events, pitting Julian against Chang, and it’s so tit-for-tat vile that it all becomes somewhat numbing. Refn manages to craft each set-up, each location, each pan or tracking shot or dissolve, to such a high degree of quality that it’s easy to overlook the fact that there’s really nothing more to the exchange of violence here, no subtext about the cultures represented, no explanation of family pathology that might make full and appropriate use of the monstrous version of motherhood embodied by Kristen Scott Thomas as “Crystal.” She shows up and bullies Julian into continuing his campaign against Chang no matter what the cost. Just as Gosling is restricted to a bagful of tics for his character here, Crystal seems to have on setting: awful. Thomas plays her as a blatantly incestuous nouveau riche stereotype, unafraid to say terrible things to anyone, unconquered with the cost of that.
Really, the only nuance we see here at all comes from Chang, and Vithaya Pansringarm manages to convey some sense of a turbulent inner life even as Chang moves through scenes of domestic normality. What makes “Only God Forgives” such a powerful experience as a movie is the way cinematographer Larry Smith, composer Cliff Martinez, production designer Beth Mickle, and editor Matthew Newman all come together in service of something sleek and gorgeous and richly realized. “Only God Forgives” is a triumph of craft, which makes the relative paucity of the content even more confusing and frustrating. It’s easy to dislike a film that is sloppy or poorly made or where there are choices you just plain don’t enjoy, but to look at a film like “Only God Forgives” that feels like a collection of genuinely talented people all working together for a purpose that simply doesn’t connect is more disappointing than anything. “Only God Forgives” is like a beautifully gift-wrapped box filled with several bags of fake blood and nothing more. It suggests to me that Refn could really use a producer and a writer to collaborate with who can play to his strengths, augment his weaknesses, and harness the almost unbelievable skill on display here, which right now feels stuck in neutral.
“Only God Forgives” is available via VOD and in limited markets you can also see it theatrically.