Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Friday, November 22, 2013


Lately when I meditate all that happens is my unconscious/anima rummages through forbidden memory drawers, exposing afresh long-buried shames as far back as ninth grade gym class. I'm all cool about it, of course--"oh thank you ma'am, for saving these precious memories"--and I believe once I accept them she's going to just toss 'em out. But I doubt she will, 'cuz my unconscious is a bitch, yo. Still, nothing like the one pulling Julian (Ryan Gosling) apart in Nicolas Winding Refn's career-sabotaging follow-up to his career-making DRIVE, ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

Yeah, but She doesn't, Blanche!

The tale of an Oedipus complex writ large by white people across the dirty expanses of Bangkok, it's almost more of a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch in an Argento hotel bar horror film than a standard Asian action-revenge thriller.

Then again, everything is a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch in an Argento hotel bar horror film for Sweden's dark lord of the Seijun Suzuki-esque macho melt-down post-modernist gangster genre, Nicolas Winding Refn, and GOD is his special love letter to those Angelica film snobs who saw his earlier films DRIVE and VALHALLA RISING and said "very good, Sven, but maybe slow it down a bit. Maybe don't have a protagonist who's such a chatterbox." There has to be one such film snob... somewhere. Maybe it's even me, for I'm keenly aware (since I'm Swedish) that to stand out from the legions of 'corrupt but honorable cop vs. redeemable but doomed Oedipussy' Asian vengeance-athons loitering sullenly along the blighted "Dark Foreign Revenge Thriller" avenues of Netflix, Refn has to import his own brand of ice and snow onto the eternally wet floors of le Bangkok Dangereuse. We Swedes know that Thai swordsman cops can out swing us, so we have to out-stare them and, more importantly, be willing to die without blinking.

No, please, don't get up
Critics haven't been kind to ONLY GOD FORGIVES, though some have been maybe too kind and maybe they shouldn't be. It practically begs for a beat-down, craves it like William Devane's masochistic ex-POW in ROLLING THUNDER. It promises to not even fight back, just proffer its hands for good severing (or garbage disposal grind). But for a film with such ornate and original visual style it sure is shy about saying anything or making a move, unless it's to judge misogynist ex-pats for slapping frightened little Bangkok sex workers. There's some bizarre sinthom going with hands, and the fear of losing them, as in if I stick my hand into this stripper's inner gates of paradise, will I ever get it back, or just pull out a stump? In a land of bare knuckle boxing and grim black dragon wallpaper, Gosling's hand bravely goes where only Jessica Harper doesn't fear to tread.

From Top: Suspiria / Only God Forgives
And there's this thing with brother Billy who is so mad about Bangkok dads pimping their daughters he kills one, or something, and some weird karaoke-singing cop lets the dad kill Billy, then cuts off the guy's hand right to punish him for that right when Julian (Ryan Gosling, apparently now the Michael Fassbender to Refn's Steve McQueen) is getting his hands tied in a lap dance, and imagining his hand cut off by the same cop. Dude, it's all connected. So the next week (or hour- there's no sense of time on the Bangkok streets) brings in on her sky chariot the brassy Clytemnestra of a devouring Mother with a typically Lady McBeth-ish streak of not thinking her dark deeds through to the end (brilliantly essayed by Kristen Scott Thomas), who has an incestuous love-hate bond with Julian, and who we learn eventually-- if our TV is on loud enough and there's no traffic outside our window to mask their fetid whispers---once ordered her boy to beat his father to death with his bare hands. And he did. You know how hands are...

But all that stuff is minor. It reminds me of my own small short films in a way, because there's no time for a plot so it all has to be delivered on the sly in expository fragments. No one leaves or arrives, they just appear in one of the many dark red-lit Chinese serpent dragon wallpapered rooms like clients at the bordello of the unconscious. When the mom lets down her hair she has a silk dress that both blends and stands out against the wallpaper. It's presumably a rose on the front but looks more like a bullet hole showing the place Julian burst out of (and where we will rather grotesquely return in the final act). She demands to know why her son hasn't killed the guy who killed his brother, when he mentions the dead son killed a sixteen year old girl she snaps "well I'm sure he had his reasons."

This old broad is a real pisser.

The film's been compared to the westerns of Sergio Leone, but in Leone all those long stares were connected to hands hovering over holsters. Clint Eastwood and his confederates didn't look at their gun or even aim it, or even blink, just stared then WHAM, one or more guys died. Hitchcock had that line about how the only difference between comedy and suspense at breakfast is that only we know a bomb's under the table in the latter, but in Leone everyone knows everyone else has a bomb under the table, and that gives their every move meaning; they don't take their eyes off each other even as they pour the coffee, with one hand, super..... slowly. For GOD, Refn takes the coffee away, the table, the eyes, even. If it's not suspense at least it's the first violent masculine deconstruction to feminize the macho staring contest, and dissociate vengeance from the minds of tortured heroes. Now instead of being about facing death it's about Sleeping Beauty, with Gosling spending the whole movie in a glass case, waiting for God's samurai sword to cleave him free of both that outer shell, and the inner too, so the nothing trapped within him can rise rise rise.

There's a great piece comparing the film with Lynch's FIRE WALK WITH ME over on Very Aware, with a Refn interview, wherein he says: the original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God."

Note the austere white Great Wall image behind him, a more logocentric version of Julian's twisted dark red wallpaper, setting off a contrast that's about far more than good vs. evil, or right vs. wrong

Hey, I know about that! That's why I love Ahab so much, and all my college poetry was about it, like my classic "The Bug that Would Swat God" - but in my case it was drunken bravado and feeling inspired by Gregory Peck's twisted oratory (see here, shipmates). Here it's less about wanting to fight God and more about doing it just to get your awful mother off your back.

And then there's the "villain," the cop in the white collar doesn't just kill people without a show of torture, hand slicing offery, etc. And for all his swift brutal gestures, our homicidal momma's boy Julian is not much of a fighter. The mom, and our own action film expectations, lead us to believe that once he's given the signal, Julian is going to be as lethal as Clint Eastwood in the climax of UNFORGIVEN. He's going to be like Popeye given the 101 proof spinach. But instead he gets beaten down... by a middle-aged balding Thai cop! That's like Sly Stallone losing a fight to Burgess Meredith, and Refn knows we'll feel that way and Julian's losing seems somehow on purpose, to piss off his mom, and us by extension, to subvert our expectations. Of course Ahab is going to lose in his battle with the white whale. That's kind of the whole point, that knowing this, on some deep level of the unconscious, he still goes for it anyway--such crazy fighting spirit is what the East is all about! And inner demon battling, trying to drink you're way sober, etc.

The only time we can control our destiny is when we deliberately pick a fight with something we know will destroy us. Freud's death drive meets its ultimate expression in the banzai death charge, the harpooner lashed to Moby Dick, me if I ever relapsed on booze, or just a little kid playing in the surf, fighting the relentless tide by jumping up at incoming waves and--'smACK'-ing them with his styrofoam boogie board, praying for a giant wave to come along yet knowing full well it would only crush him and then drag him along the sand and seashells... back inland.

It seems absurd that mom should be so eager for vengeance that she'd go up against a supernatural cop like this, but without her around to shake things up everyone would still be sitting where we left them, motionless, like a flock of ventriloquist dummies after their owners have all gone to bed. Refn's out to do more with his dolly than deliver a mere Asian revenge thriller; he's gone way past the 1967 Seijun Suzuki deconstruction like BRANDED TO KILL (above; below) and exposed the hideous mom-hating apron string hacker inner child of Ryan Gosling's new Action Figure persona.

It helps to learn that Refn shot in chronological order and kind of winged it for large stretches, with Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas both having lots of input and collaboration in their characters' outcomes, and genius DP Larry Smith (who worked with Refn on BRONSON) seems to have been given free reign with the surreal gels. There's a feeling that comes across when submitting to that kind of spontaneity, Godardesque perhaps, but more open-ended, in the moment, from second to second, but the drawback is it seldom builds to any satisfying catharsis or ending. It's like that stare of the Leone gunfighter with his hand over his gun has widened and lasts the entire film, and then no gun is drawn. And there are no hands left to pull a trigger. The first credit at the end is to announce the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is pretty steep company. The man is a God himself, a shaman first class, and tellingly has much armless and/or handless characters, especially in SANTA SANGRE.

from top: Only God Forgives, Santa Sangre
All we know is Julian was pretty twisted before all this revenge got started but he quickly loses it thereafter, while watching his stripper cry jeweled tears behind the strings of a crystal bird house corner he hears some laughter at the other end of the club. They could be laughing at anything but Julian thinks they're laughing at him. Next thing you know he's smashing a glass in one of their faces and dragging him around by his upper palette. Dude, that's paranoid!

From top: Buffalo 66, OGF, B66 OGF ,The Fighter, OGF, B66, The Fighter
So paranoid in fact it reminds me of two other movies about bruised masculinity: BUFFALO 66, THE FIGHTER, and Refn's best movie so far, VALHALLA RISING (very similar ending).  Gosling's cobra stillness isn't as strange as it was in DRIVE, since everyone else is on the same slow down drug (that stuff they sell in DREDD, maybe), since everyone suffers from it, a Sergio Leone-like slow-mo Xanax meltdown ensues. The great music by Cliff Martinez even becomes Angelo Badalamenti at times (the music from TWIN PEAKS was supposedly what Refn cut the film to), linking it as a kind of sequel to THE FIGHTER if Mickey Ward and his ma set up shop at a fight club down in Thailand, and she left to do various deals, but she still flies in like an avenging angel when son Dicky the crackhead is killed. Meanwhile there's some BUFFALO 66 meets THE WRESTLER nonsense as Julian's favorite crying stripper, who gives the drowsiest lap dances in history, is supposed to wear a dress and meet the foulmouthed Madea of a mom. Interesting too that the dead son is named Billy, and had a huge, enormous cock (according to the mom). If Gallo had played him, oooh synchro-gorgeousity made flesh.

from top: B66, OGF, OGF, B66
And it's clear Billy and Julian both have some seriously warped misogyny going on with women as a result of their mom and--as in BUFFALO 66's strip club run--father figures they've killed or are determined to kill in one way or another. The Billy in both films skulks around the periphery of slow motion druggy sex dens, forever denied the presumed pleasures of full psychic abandon. Both have way too many mother issues to permit anything approaching even a feint at that sort of enjoyment. They can only take it out on women who seem weaker and more submissive somehow, to vicariously relive their primal scene in an attempt to rewritezzzzzz --eh? I nodded off.... or did I? Did I miss anything?

No --they're all still just staring.

Simply Perfect.


  1. I saw the David Lynch comparison (it was hard to miss in the karaoke scenes). It made more sense as a touchstone than Jodorowsky, who Refn dedicates the movie to.

    The other director I see similarities to (more in "Valhalla Rising" than "Only God Forgives," but...) is Andrei Tarkovsky.

    Tarkovsky because I kept waiting for the scene to bring it all together, and instead I get... Gosling doesn't even lay a punch!

    Very uncomfortable movie that leaves you without any answers. I liked it because of its flaws!

    1. Thanks Katy, I agree-- it's the wry answer to producer expectations of easy to follow crime-vengeance formula. Tarkovsky maybe but there's no nature.

  2. Just started this on Netflix, liking it so far. Doesn't all this business with missing arms also make Refn a Tod Browning for the 21st century?

  3. OMG youre so right Samuel! I might have to retroactively add some THE UNHOLY THREE stills.

  4. I was cracking wise for the first two acts, as it feels like a movie pitched by Mac from Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "Okay, so Ryan Gosling's brother is killed by this scary badass cop for being an asshole, but Gosling already knows this because he has the power of erotic prophecy."

    Then the third comes around and totally rescues the movie by completely subverting the cinema of machismo, and coming up with a way to make the "good" outcome as emotionally unsatisfying as possible. A couple minutes into the credits I realized that the "villain" had been the story's moral center the whole time, and the only reason I didn't see it was because "it's going to be super badass when they finally fight." Sure he's brutal and unethical, but so is God. And while every other character commits violence for the sake of vanity or revenge, he meters his out based on a rigid moral code. (A key moment being when he turns away from the hitman who is ready for his punishment and makes with the chopping on his less stoic partner. That guy might have even gotten away with merely life in prison.)

    1. Knarf! Thanks for that, I admit I couldn't remember which of those two guys did the hit at the time but you're right, it all makes sense when it dawns on you that this is an ass kicking vengeance movie all right, but the vengeance is coming towards our handsome star, and like all good villains he spends his life sitting very still, waiting for his cue to die like a brave

  5. You had me at "Suspiria from a man's perspective" (I know what you meant to say) and Buffalo 66.

    1. Thanks o mighty Drunketh. I was riffing off how Suspiria sounds like a perfume. Suspira, the new fragrance from Chanel. And how in its way Refn's film is a masculine fairy tale nightmare, the Oedipus to Suspiria's Brothers Grimm

    2. Ah, thanks for the clarification. Humor achieved. I would like to purchase a bottle for myself please.


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