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|
|From Top: Suspiria / Only God Forgives|
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|
|From top: Buffalo 66, OGF, B66 OGF ,The Fighter, OGF, B66, The Fighter|
|from top: B66, OGF, OGF, B66|
No --they're all still just staring.