Monday, July 22, 2013

Up Jumped the Devil: In Praise of Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives"

To begin: yes, I know this blog has become the lawn that I never mow. But I have been keeping track of everything I see. With a little luck, I'll soon get back to updating Extended Cut...but only after I finish the latest phase of an ongoing project. Thanks for your...well, I don't know what.

Also: there are lots of spoilers ahead. Lots.

Only God Forgives reminds me of a Nick Cave song. It's full of pompous swagger because it's an expression of the artist's fascination with preening machismo. Think of Cave's version of "Stagger Lee." That song ends with "the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee" getting a blow job, and blowing a rival suitor's brains out. The song's excesses are pointed. It's a half-sneering, half-celebratory destruction of the chauvnism inherent in Cave's persona. It's about a badass that is so desperate, and so unhinged that he'll make good on all of his delirious threats (50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole? You don't say...). The main difference between a Cave song and a Nicolas Winding Refn film is that Cave performs as himself. He is Mistah Staggah Lee, his own best joke. The same cannot be said about Refn's recent films. He is their primary author, but he's not immediately dabbling with his own image. Still, both artists deal in excess, and love to explore the hetero male id at its most reptilian.

Refn's latest is, to some extent, of a piece with both Valhalla Rising and Drive. As in both of those films, Refn represents the world in Only God Forgives as a surreal mix of dream, and reality. You can see that when Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) sings karaoke. Chang's singing establishes two things. The first karaoke scene suggests that the film's Bangkok is a world that exists independently of Julian's (Ryan Gosling) story. But the second scene, when Chang sings a song called "You Are My Dream" on the film's soundtrack, complicates that notion. It's the film's concluding sequence, the kind of scene a dreamer sees just before waking up. In a moment of panic, Julian's imagines/sees life without himself. Julian's dream Bangkok, a city that Chang comfortably navigates, and disappears into as if he were its avatar, has rejected him. In this case, the nightmare outlives its creator/main subject.
Make no mistake, Only God Forgives is more dream-like than it is realistic. When Drive's Driver was compared to the Man with No Name, Refn tellingly said: "Leone understood that film isn't reality." You can accordingly read Only God Forgives as a film that, like Valhalla Rising, and Drive to a lesser extent, is only interested in reality as a facade. Where Bronson and Drive are both essentially about, in Refn's words, "transformation," both Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives are about revelation.* The protagonists of both Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives are stoic because their intentions are supposed to be impenetrable, albeit for different reasons. In Valhalla Rising, Mads Mikkelsen's One-Eye has both Christ-like and pagan attributes. He's a sign of the muddled times: which tribe of manly zealots will prevail? Only God Forgives also follows a mute protagonist as he discovers his environment's finite borders. The main difference between these two films is that Valhalla Rising is a Herzog-like daydream while Only God Forgives is a Lynchian nightmare.

Both styles of filmmaking put primacy on the image, and force the viewer to look for signs of interior life through externalized violence. This isn't surprising since  Refn is dyslexic, and has described himself as a visual learner. He thinks in images: before he makes a film, he writes on index cards the images he most wants to see. For Only God Forgives, the first image that came to mind was Ryan Gosling's hands, either clenched in defiance, or outstretched in submission. This image is key because, while the film was originally sold as a western set in modern Thailand, it's actually a very weird "fight movie." So by film's end, Julian, a Thai boxer that sublimates his libido into his fighting, ultimately chooses to stretch out his palms, and castrate himself. At this point, he knows that he can't hide in any of the protective surrogate wombs he's made for himself.

Which leads me to Only God Forgives' plot, such as it is. The film's narrative is a circuitous exploration of Julian's environment/head. His brother Clay (Tom Burke) has just been murdered. So his estranged, mannish-looking mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes back to Thailand, and demands satisfaction. Crystal is the film's greatest monster/mystery. She looks so, em, androgynous because Refn thinks of her as Julian's father and mother. She would eat her young, so why wouldn't she have already eaten/become her husband?

Crystal's trans-sexuality makes her abnormal, especially in the context of Julian's brother's death. He goes berserk in a brothel right after egging the owner on: how many of these prostitutes are really women? Crystal wants revenge, and demands that Julian give him satisfaction. But he's torn. He wants to keep hiding, to keep pretend that he is something that he isn't. So Julian is a fighter that almost never fights. He also wants to imagine that he has a normal romantic relationship, even if he knows that all of his encounters with Mai (Yayaing Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute, are highly ritualized, and vagino-centric. He tries to pass Mai off as his partner, but Crystal just laughs. She knows that, since Julian is her son, he's not normal. No amount of stoicism can hide that level of abnormality. So Crystal puts Julian in his place by insulting his date ("Cum dumpster!"), making him realize that he can't hide in/with Mai.

Chang also brings Julian out of hiding. He wants to draw out his opponent's inner ugliness, so he scars their faces, like when he smashes a glass against the head of a noisy john at a brothel. So when Chang beats up Julian, Gosling's bloodied, purple, lumpy face is a revelation. At that point, Julian has to confront the monstrous personality he' suppressed behind blank eyes (Refn compares Julian to the Somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).

So it's no surprise that the most excruciating scene in Only God Forgives is the one where Chang repeatedly stabs a man's hands, and face until he's crippled, blind, and deaf. This scene reminds me of Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. In that earlier film, Jodorowsky (as "The Alchemist") presents religious rituals as silk scarves that need to be sequentially pulled out/ripped up so that you can get to/destroy the next layer of reality. Violence in Refn's films, serves a similar function. Like Jodorowsky's illusions, Refn's bloodiest set pieces are arch, necessary, and absurd.

So before Chang slowly tortures his victim, he asks the women in the room to close their eyes. He wants them to hide from what is, in the film's reality, a hideously distended epiphany. Every time Chang attacks his helpless mark, he does it with insane deliberation. The scene seems to take place in real-time, an impression that's only heightened by Chang's victim's screams. But this scene is only as realistic as the scenes in Holy Mountain when the Alchemist pensively imparts disposable/essential arcane knowledge to his acolytes. His rules, and his lesson are paradoxically arbitrary, and portentous. Watching him work is like experiencing a vivid, and viscerally upsetting dream whose logic is too obscure to parse.

This is also why Only God Forgives reminds me of a David Lynch movie: it's funny like a David Lynch film is funny. Refn is atypically coy about his film's sense of humor. He says that the violence in his movies is necessarily extreme because that stuff gets him off, like pornography. But realistically, Refn just doesn't want to reveal too much. Some scenes in Only God Forgives are obviously intentionally unnerving, like Crystal, Mai, and Julian's dinner conversation. Gosling's terror-stricken dumbshow is priceless, equal parts silent comedian and sleepwalker. But what to make of the film's eye-gouging, welt-causing, oil-splashing, womb-touching violence? This stuff is funny, but only because it's so discomfiting. It's icky, and overdone, and self-serious...kind of like parts of David Lynch's films. While I don't like Wild at Heart, Only God Forgives dredges up laughs in a similar fashion.

Refn's blithe willingness to go so far out on a limb is exciting. He's not doing it to piss people off, or to prove how much of a bad boy he can be. Film Comment's John Romney aptly described Valhalla Rising as, "Alejandro Jodorowsky pared down to a spartan minimalism, or John Milius stoned on some obscure Arctic fungus." Only God Forgives was made by Romney's Refn, but it's even more severe than Romney's comparisons imply. With Only God Forgives, Refn follows through on some of his most disturbing ideas/images yet, and he does it to the hilt. I like that so much of the film's meaning glistens on its surface. I also love that Refn, like Nick Cave, lets the madness of his dream devour itself. At the end of "Stagger Lee," you can hear Cave roll his eyes. "Oy," he groans before Warren Ellis's guitar submerges us in grinding dentist-drilling. Refn doesn't give that kind of respite at the end of Only God Forgives. He just lops off Ryan Gosling's hands, and leaves us for dead. This might be Refn's best film.

*Refn is also the sole credited author of both Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives' screenplays.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this deep reading of a flick that's parting the crowd like a spontaneous pit fight. I gotta go see for myself.

    I believe there's too much Violence in the Cinema nowadays, most of it unjustified by anything other than the fact that bloody bruises make certain directeurs feel all tight in the drawers. And I'm a dude who grooves to Jodorowsky, Makajevev, Zulawski, Tarantino, Scorsese, and, of course, Jeff Leroy. It's just that I'm not sure any of them is quite aware of how little the excitement of their films is dependent upon all the serial killer flesh tapestries; how much mileage and intensity they could get just from the psychology, the light, the color, the motion. This enduring violence jones in art cinema seems to be a lingering after effect of the 60's, when the great directors branded a widespread impression that seriousness = bandages and moping.

    You're diving into John Cassavetes flicks now, and that dude had an answer to all that stuff, an answer that still challenges mod arthouse savagery to this day. Every one of Cass's psychologically intense movies was an action movie, but only a handful of times did somebody spill any blood.

    None of which speaks to your fine points above, but we'll talk after I see OGF myself. Tantalizing: "This is also why Only God Forgives reminds me of a David Lynch movie: it's funny like a David Lynch film is funny." This invites the question, what other non-Lynch films are Lynch-funny? The last movie we might have said that about is trippy Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, yeah? Your description of OGF's textures and preoccupations makes it sound like it belongs on a double bill with the John Hyams opus.