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.