Only God Forgives
So far, Nicolas Winding Refn has explored violence and masculinity in numerous forms. The Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive and now Only God Forgives have shown men's battles to serve justice, to survive, to protect and to refuse to bow to authority. Largely women have been absent or the subject of male protection - men's existence in his films has been the fact and women have been somewhat ancillary to his themes and ideas.When Drive was released with a more substantial female presence, the director offered his own role as a father who protects his family as evidence of what spurred Ryan Gosling on to the acts that caused that film to repel so many. In his ongoing collaboration with Gosling, Refn has now cast him as a mother's son awash in a sea of violence, presumably to similarly explore the impact on his model of maternal power.
Lit in reds, blues and the neon of the night, Only God Forgives channels David Lynch much as Drive looked back to Walter Hill and Michael Mann. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Gosling's mom like an echo of Diane Ladd's matriarch from Wild at Heart with even heftier doses of incestuous sub-current injected by Refn. Several karaoke sequences are thrown in with an impeccable deployment of kitsch to create no doubt in this reviewer's mind that the bastard child of Jimmy Stewart and Salvador Dali casts a long shadow over the action.
Beginning with Gosling's brother and fellow drug dealer, Billy, butchering a child prostitute, we start a swift descent into hell shot with tremendous style and an unsettling hypnotic tone. In turn, Billy is judged and summarily executed by an all-knowing police detective, by getting the prostitute's father to commit the deed before judging the same man's bad parenting though amputation. Gosling hunts down the now single handed father and learns of the detective and his brother's crimes - he chooses to forego further vengeance offending his newly arrived mother and thus begins a story where mommy dearest and the omniscient detective face off.
The subject matter is sparely dealt with and the real themes are the dysfunctional nature of Gosling's Julian and the battle between maternal manipulations and unfailing authority. As in Drive, Gosling is still, a canvas to be painted upon, and full of relatable passions that explain the man he is, for good or bad. There is very little innocence within the film and most of the values we'd normally look for have been substituted by damning alternatives - prostitution for romantic love, incest for maternal affection and revenge for justice.So the collaboration is more twisted, darker than Drive, and yields even less in terms of optimism. The elaborate nature of the detective's actions might be seen as empty stylising and turning the violence into pornography, and Scott Thomas' mother performance verges on hateful and misogynist. Yet what I admired and will take away was a Freudian fable, shot unforgettably and full of emotional gut punches - a film that isn't just happy with your disposable enjoyment but wants you to suffer and reflect much as it has.
Only God Forgives confirms Refn as one of our most interesting film-makers, just don't expect that he doesn't want to fuck with you. If you don't want to let him, then look elsewhere...