Cannes may not have been the ideal place to debut “Only God Forgives” which was met with hesitant applause there last May. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s batshit, balls-to-the-walls Bangkok-set followup to 2011’s “Drive” deserves closer consideration. Clearly, this far less accessible film won’t be everyone’s thing when RADiUS/TWC opens the film stateside July 19.
Before the film started, Winding Refn told us that while “Drive” was like “doing cocaine all night,” “Only God Forgives” is more of “an old school acid trip.” But this film — nocturnal, deathly quiet and far more sinister — is also a more sleepy psychotropic experience. It’s David Lynch goes to Thailand to direct a spaghetti western on quaaludes.
Rather than the neon-soaked LA streets of “Drive,” this time Winding Refn’s milieu is the criminal underbelly of Bangkok, dressed in red and black. Ryan Gosling gives a somnambulant performance — for better and for worse — as Julian, a drug-dealer with an Oedipal streak and plenty of anger issues along with the mommy ones. When his brother is killed during a botched prostitute transaction, their blonde, feisty, perpetually cigarette-wielding mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a performance that will no doubt pick up a few awards come fall) shows up in Thailand to exact revenge. Or, rather, to sick her lost puppy of a son Julian on whoever did this.
Julian endures some literal beatings in Winding Refn’s slick, languorous tableaux but moreover he must suffer the barrage of emotional punches levied upon him by Crystal as she beats him into submission. Winding Refn’s sparse screenplay, in which Gosling says only a few words, lays the incestuous undertones front and center in a film that emphasizes sensation rather than sense. What follows is a tightly edited exercise in extreme violence and ennui, with a revenge plan that goes as out of control as one in any Coen Brothers’ film. It’s one of the best films of the year.
In a Q & A moderated by LAFF artistic director and former Newsweek film critic David Ansen, the articulate provocateur opened up about “Only God Forgives,” first and foremost reiterating his comment from Cannes that he is a “pornographer.”
“I make films about what arouses me at different times. I loved the idea of doing a mother and son story set in a fairytale construction, with a narrative that is all about seeing and feeling and in a way you have to fill in the blanks,” Winding Refn said. “Art is most satisfying when it’s a two-way process. It has to penetrate you and you have to throw it back to a give-and-take, or else it becomes one-way.”
Ansen iterated some of the influences and comparisons that ran through the film. Clearly, Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” is acutely felt in “Only God Forgives,” not only due to composer Cliff Martinez’s pulsing organ motif — in a score that is equal parts electro minimalism and synthy, Badalamentian melodrama — but because the characters move as if they are “asleep,” as Winding Refn said. He used the mythology of the sleepwalker, “condemned to a sense of Dante’s Inferno,” to construct Julian.
“Because the film has so little verbal explanation, which is one of the tools we’re used to now in cinema and television to guide us, when you remove that element it’s a very interesting landscape because you’re forced to tell the story through sound, music and images,” Winding Refn revealed. Considering that the director is colorblind, it’s a wonder that he is able to conjure such colorful cinema.
Of all the characters onscreen, Kristin Scott Thomas has the most dialogue, and it’s usually nasty. “I’m afraid of seeing her again. She has no problem turning on the bitch switch,” Winding Refn admitted. “I was casting unknown actresses out of the UK, but then Kristin Scott Thomas read the script. We talked a lot about Lady Macbeth and those classical approaches to her character.”
She wanted to do a transformation for Crystal, so a few days after meeting Winding Refn she sent him a picture of her in a long blonde wig. “It was Donatella Versace here we come,” Winding Refn said. KST, as she is known colloquially onset, does a lot of mouthing-off in the film. At dinner, she calls Julian’s date a “cumdumpster,” a word that Refn picked up from Gosling when he asked for a list of the most demeaning sexist epithets to woman in America.
Another leitmotif is an image of Julian’s hands, with literal and metaphorical blood on them, opening and closing. Several characters in the film have their arms and hands severed off by sword. Winding Refn’s idea for “Only God Forgives” began with this kernel of an idea: a fist opening and closing. When the fist is closed, “it’s an extension of the erection, and when you open up it becomes very feminine. I wanted to make a movie where the hand has to be amputated, and Ryan has great hands,” Winding Refn said.
According to Winding Refn, the crew had seven nights to shoot in Bangkok: “This is very tough because of the heat. A lot of locations were sex clubs. Once you turn off the air conditioning, the smell of human ‘pleasure’ is quite intoxicating. I like being a stranger in a strange land. I live a mundane life in Copenhagen.”
The film is dedicated to “Holy Mountain” director Alejandro Jodorowsky. I don’t recall such an unusual and oddly befitting homage since Lars von Trier gifted “Antichrist” to Andrei Tarkovsky in 2009 (in each case, the audience snickered at the dedication). “I find that ‘El Topo’ really created modern pop cinema,” Winding Refn said. “His inspiration has become invisible. He’s almost 90 and I wanted to say goodbye. Because he’s going to die.”