This is one fucked-up movie. There's no other way to say it, really. As fans of director Nicolas Refn and his alter ego Ryan Gosling have surely heard by now, their follow-up to Drive was pretty badly received at the Cannes Film Festival last month. How bad? Well, there was booing, maybe some hisses, and plenty of people who left the press screening well before the credits—and certainly after more than a few eyes—had rolled. Booing, as has been reported before, is a sort of spectator sport at the festival, and over the years plenty of films have been unceremoniously jeered. Among them, Taxi Driver, Wild At Heart, and Crash, which puts Nic Refn in stellar company. Even his fellow Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the great master of highly charged silence and glacial pacing, was given a clamorous reception for his final film, Gertrud, at Cannes in 1965. So you could say that this is indeed a long tradition that carries on to the present day. That said, Only God Forgives is not exactly the Taxi Driver of our time, and opinions about Refn's film, so divided now, may not be destined for revision.
While I wasn't at Cannes, I was in France that week, and almost immediately after the press screening had concluded, theaters in Paris began showing the film. I just couldn't pass up the chance to go. It's not scheduled to open stateside until July 19, which was too long to hold out. And now that I've seen the film, I have to admit that while it's well worth seeing, it wouldn't have been worth the wait. Only God Forgets? Although the film doesn't need to be retitled or retooled before it comes to a theater near you, it's likely that whatever expectations you have will probably not be met. Refn may have intentionally worked against expectation, not willing to roll Drive 2 off the assembly line, especially with Gosling at the wheel, and for this he is to be admired. And yet when you left the theater after seeing Drive, you were thinking about when you would see it next, the friends you would excitedly share it with. I had felt this way about Refn's previous films as well—Pusher and its sequels (1996, 2004-05), Bronson (2008), and the incredible Valhalla Rising (2009). The stories they tell are viscerally engaging, by turns brutal, comical, and hallucinatory, with Refn mapping a canvas in which figures both physically and enigmatically inhabit a brooding, unforgiving landscape, or cityscape—a kind of heathen earth. Drive sent many viewers back to those earlier works of Refn's, and made them believers. Only God Forgives is something else entirely, a film you're not in a hurry to revisit or turn anyone on to.
So what exactly went wrong? Every film starts with the writing, with the story and the characters. Michael Haneke has said that a director has one of the most overrated jobs in the world, that it's the writing that’s difficult, that the story and the characters are at the core of any film. A friend who read an advance copy of Refn's script, who said that it was really promising, hasn't seen the film and was genuinely surprised by the critical thrashing. Obviously something happened between the time that Refn sat at his desk to imagine this story, and when he got behind the camera to set his characters in motion. For one thing, he's said that Gosling wasn't originally meant to play the part, so he didn't know they were going to be working together again until after the script was finished. This may be true, but actors and directors have been known to rewrite material before production begins, and even when they're shooting. Something can happen on the set that's impossible to predict on paper, and once the Refn/Gosling team was back in the saddle, don't you think they would have gone for more of a ride?
Refn certainly made the right choice not to attempt anything even remotely close to a Drive 2. At the same time, he seems as much to have purposefully thrown a spoke in his own wheels as he's freely indulged himself. While Refn may have been able to strike a balance between preening and pandering, it might have been wiser to set Gosling out on at least a half-hearted ho stroll. This may be nothing more than pervey, unwanted expectation rearing its head, but isn't this a big part of why we go to the movies in the first place? Refn knows this very well. Simply put, the character that Gosling plays is so hollow—and like his predecessor, "Driver," almost a silent film actor—so emasculated and impotent, that the star of this film doesn't seem to be its star at all. In one scene, Refn sticks his camera directly in Gosling's crotch and in the dim light we see no package, no payoff, and he does this not once but twice, as if to push the point limply home: this character is so emotionally bankrupt that there is no possibility for a "money shot." He's a ghost, as the original script called for, as Refn's story is predicated upon, and yet if the movie doesn't deliver, even if Gosling's character doesn't haunt us when all is unsaid and done, then the fault is neither with the casting nor the performance, and only somewhat to blame on the unmet desire of an audience. It rests somewhere inside that narrative, something the director probably can't acknowledge. After all, he wrote the story he wanted to film, and then put in on the screen, remaining true to his vision.
In Cannes, Refn was interviewed just after the film endured its negative reception, and the exchange went like this:
"I’m not sure if you’re aware, but at the press screening this morning, there was a smattering of boos and some walkouts."
"You’re excited about that?"
"I mean, how can I expect someone to not react like this when on one hand you are dropping what you do in everyone’s face and at the same time saying, 'Love me, please,' you know? You’re going to get that. You know, great art—horrible thing to say—but art is meant to divide, because if it doesn’t divide, it doesn’t penetrate, and if it doesn’t penetrate, you just consume it."
It's possible that an even worse move for a filmmaker, rather than rushing headlong to happily meet expectations is, conversely, to turn 180 degrees away from them. It's quite possible that a murky, highly-stylized pastiche—and for Euro critics this would certainly be perceived as arty pretension from an "Americanized" director—with a de-sexualized leading man to boot, would never go over well in Cannes. In that rarefied, some might say biased, environment, journalists breathing in the salt air would also smell blood. And yet something tells me that Refn can't be too sanguine about the film's reception stateside, despite its cerebral/sensational dynamics. After all, in a more populist setting, an audience ultimately wants to be entertained, to get some bang for its buck, as well as for the movie to continue in their heads after they've left the theater. If this is the case, Refn can't confidently expect a much more enthusiastic reception than he's gotten so far. As for penetration, there is one moment in the film that is absolutely guaranteed to get under people's skin, not only on an incestuous level, but for the fact that it is also poignant and slightly necrophiliac. It made me wonder: in the face of seductive abandonment and abuse, how far will humans go to insert themselves into the lives of unloving loved ones while the body is still warm?
So why did Refn make what seems to critics, though not to his longtime followers, such a big U-turn? Maybe to be taken seriously as an artist? To offer no other recourse than for us to acknowledge his seriousness and artistry? Is that why the film was booed? That’s only part of the reason. Add in the fact that the story is just not that well staged, that there aren't enough interesting characters who move fluidly and unexpectedly in and around Gosling's character to really animate him and the proceedings. In Drive, the film was populated and choreographed in exactly this way. In Only God Forgives, a near-lifeless character surrounded by a pervading mood of inertia cannot be saved by all the thrilling, sadistic violence—and vengeance—in the world. There is, however, one great character, Gosling's viperous, poisoned mother, Crystal, who is played bitch- and pitch-perfectly by a totally transformed Kristin Scott Thomas. The description of her character that has been making the rounds can in no way be improved upon: Donatella Versace meets Lady Macbeth. And it's an image that she herself is in many ways responsible for, from conception to performance.
In one great scene, when Gosling improbably takes his prostitute companion to meet his mother at a sedately expensive restaurant, the exchange between mom and his "date" politely goes down like this:
"So Mai, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm an entertainer."
"And how many cocks do you entertain in your cum dump?"
Gosling, for his part, is left with nothing to say. Scott Thomas, even more so than the avenging angel played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is the central compelling character in this film. Injected with "Crystal meth," it comes to scary, visceral life whenever she is on screen, no less than when she recoils and becomes almost human. Even the great Anjelica Huston in The Grifters doesn't come as close to the high-pitched game of maternal cat-and-mouse that the Scott Thomas character seems to have invented and serves up cold on the stage. When Crystal says that she wanted her revenge as a head on a platter, she is most certainly not speaking metaphorically. And when she casually discusses the sizes of her two sons' dicks, it's as if she has seen them much more recently than when she last changed diapers. Only Mom Forgives?
The violence will make some uneasy, and it underscores part of what's wrong with this film by placing the problem with Gosling's character in very stark relief. When he takes a merciless beating, you don't care at all. You don't root for him, you don't want to see him get up and fight back. It's somehow satisfying to witness him take such punishment, and then to see him in the following scene with one of his eyes fused shut. (And hard not to be reminded of the character "One Eye" from Valhalla Rising, and the astounding performance of Mads Mikkelsen.) You could say that when Gosling's character gets his ass kicked, there is a conflicted libidinal thrill. Just as in the boxing ring, one guy will be turned into a piece of meat by another, a punching bag, down on his knees—with all that implies—and then lifelessly laid out, flat on his back.
The self-styled God of this film, a sadistic chief inspector who has appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner, is also a family man who improbably seeks refuge in the profound, plastic sadness of a karaoke bar. Like Gosling's character he is also mostly speechless, except for here, as he becomes his own ventriloquist. (It is one of the film's most perversely unexpected scenes, and pure Refn.) This conception of the "punisher" is nothing new. From Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry to Takshi Kitano and Violent Cop, it's a toxic formula that has been perfectly distilled over time, a poisoned well to which we still go back for a sip now and then. Lines that were once clearly drawn are now routinely crossed, and the anti-hero has become the only believable hero in our time. But despite all the severed limbs and emasculation in Only God Forgives, neither of the central characters fulfill this part.One blade is sharp and another is dull.With the portentousness of the inspector and all he is meant to represent on one side, and the flimsy cipher that is Gosling's character on the other, both the battle between them and the climax of the film are anticlimactic and unsatisfying. How could it be any other way? The story is so seriously skewed that in a sense it has no center. As Refn would have it, you can't fight God, or you can't fight and win. The counterargument, of course, is that there's simply no reason to fight something you don't believe. Shadowboxing may turn out to be the least of Refn's transgressions, though miscalculation is probably a better term. Because in the end, his Big Problem is that Gosling and his character, for the two are intimately entwined, serve neither as our antihero nor an object of desire. And for this—in a story of vengeance that lures so many into its web—no director should be forgiven.
Previously by Bob Nickas - Why. I Hate. Graffiti.