Before we get into our regularly scheduled article I just wanted to point something out to you – this will be my one hundredth article for Sequart. My first post went up on February fifteenth, 2013. It was about Neil Gaiman and P Craig Russell’s Sandman special. Since then I’ve shifted into TV and film reviews and become a staff writer for the site. I’ve made video reviews and helped work on all sorts of things for the site. I think it’s really helped me grow as a writer, and I can only thank the site for letting my exploratory ramblings reach your eyes. Everyone along the way has been a joy to work with, and I look forward to writing my next hundred pieces.
I wasn’t sure what to write about for my hundredth article, but I opted to treat myself. I decided to review a movie I really wanted to watch and write about for my hundredth article. Something I really wanted to tackle writing about. I hope you enjoy it.
Imagine something for me, if you will. Imagine a basement room. There are no windows. It was once a decadent, ornate room. The kind of room stylish gangsters might have practiced secret vices in. Except it’s not ornate anymore. It’s no longer decadent. It’s decrepit and rundown. You’re on your hands and knees in the centre of the dusty, dirty floor. There is blood on your knuckles. Yours and someone else’s. You try to breathe. You gasp air in over shorn lungs. Bile hits the back of your throat as you lift your head up into the neon light.
Close your eyes.
Can you picture it?
If you can, you’ve just imagined what it’s like to watch Only God Forgives. Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to his breakthrough film, Drive. It was pretty hated. After the success of Drive everyone was anticipating Refn’s next movie. Drive is a simple, straightforward movie with great visuals and a killer soundtrack. There’s enough gore and weirdness to make it a cool, non-mainstream film in everyone’s eyes. Only God Forgives, on the other hand, is even less palatable. The main character is weirder, the violence is more disturbing, scenes are longer and quieter, and the whole core of the film’s being feels uglier.
The movie follows Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, who helps manage a Muay Thai boxing ring with his brother. The ring is actually a front for a variety of drug deals managed by Julian’s family. Shortly after the movie starts, Julian’s brother rages through the night in Thailand. His bacchanalia seems to begin and end when he rapes and murders an underage prostitute. The cops catch him. A retired cop named Chang traps him in a room and offers the girl’s father a chance to have his revenge. He beats Julian’s brother to death. The cops then drive the father to a secluded area and kneel him down. Chang stares him down and tells him that he deserves to be punished for prostituting out his own daughter. Chang unveils a sword and slices the man’s hand off.
The plot, such as it is, kicks in after this incident. Julian’s mother, Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives to ensure that her son’s murderer is killed. Crystal is, in some way, behind the drug dealing. Either she’s the bank role, or the mastermind. She’s definitely got her children wrapped around her finger. The skeletal plot follows her attempt at revenge and Chang’s meticulous hunt to eliminate her family.
The movie has sparse characterization and plot. It’s bleak and ugly and difficult. The violence is striking. Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who name checks Cannibal Holocaust as an influence, and in Only God Forgives it shows. When the movie gets around to violence, it’s strikingly realistic. At one point Chang throws a wok full of oil into a would-be assassin’s face and then beats him over the head with the empty wok. There are plenty of gaping wounds and exposed ribs and eye gouging. It’s ruthless. But there’s not that much violence. A lot of this movie is pure atmosphere. Long creeping shots of hallways and dramatic lights and Julian staring at his hands. If you actually stripped this movie back to its purest plot points, there are probably not even twenty minutes of story-relevant scenes.
That’s part of why the movie is amazing though. It’s so deliberately obtuse. Atmosphere mixed with ugly violence and uglier characters. It’s not an engaging movie. It’s almost designed to be disliked. It rubs you the wrong way and leaves you sitting with your hair pricked up and your stomach uncomfortable. Like harsh feedback or static. It’s perfectly discomforting.
It’s an incredibly Freudian film, in a variety of ways. For one thing Julian’s relationship with his awful, awful mother is incredibly Freudian. That’s all but text. It’s very blunt. Technically there’s nothing concrete, but it’s far, far too blunt to be considered subtext. It is NOT comfortable. If listening to Crystal berate Julian’s hired date and talk about Julian’s genitals vs. his brother’s genitals is going to disturb you, well, it should. It’s gross. It’s meant to be gross. Julian is retarded too. Or mentally handicapped in some way. It’s not necessarily clear, but it seems like something of that kind. It casts another layer of pall over the unpleasant goings on. Julian seems mentally unequipped to deal with his situation. There’s also a lot that seems drawn from that scriptwriting companion, Freud’s essay on the uncanny. I don’t mock; I read it while working on a script. So did Kubrick when he worked on The Shining. Freud’s ideas about symbolic castration and symbols crossing over to the real world are writ large across Only God Forgives.
It’s a stomach twisting, black-hearted movie. It’s easy to see why fans of the far more accessible Drive didn’t respond well to it. Only God Forgives shares far more with Valhalla Rising than Drive. It’s so perfectly, deliciously evil throughout. Evil and sparse and beautifully shot.