Back in 2011, Drive’s (TMT Review) appropriation of sleek 80s textures and tropes made Nicolas Winding Refn an exponent of cinematic proto-vaporwave. OK I’m reaching — but he is at least the progeny of 1980s European, big-clean-style-plus-violence filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven. Only God Forgives is, then, arguably his Showgirls, if you just scrape off the arty veneer. It’s got a steady stream of hilariously arch lines, and its archetypal megabitch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) — a telenovela/Donatella Versace/Baby Jane Hudson hybrid — could inspire a generation of drag queens to start their engines.
“I wanna fuck a fourteen-year-old.”
Drug dealing is the family business and Crystal’s older son has just been murdered in Bangkok — after raping and murdering a teenage prostitute himself — by the prostitute’s dad. Ryan Gosling brings on the pecs and nostrils as Julian, Crystal’s other son, reprising his silent-type-with-a-violent-temper persona from Drive. Crystal liked her dead son way better, but that doesn’t stop her from hugging Julian inappropriately around the buttocks and running an appreciative finger down his tricep. Gosling/Julian looks like the kind of guy that might recommend the hazelnut-encrusted halibut with snap peas special at Lucques; in actuality he is a badass, as evidenced by the small scar in his eyebrow. Mom tasks him with icing the guy that killed his brother, but deep down Julian is a good person and kind of thinks that’s not cool.
“He killed and raped a sixteen-year-old girl.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Meanwhile Chang, a plainclothes policeman with mystery Asian powers, has somehow gotten involved. He carries a sword on his back and is in the habit of punishing evildoers by chopping off their arms. He, in fact, amputates the beautiful Gosling/Julian arm early on, but it turns out it’s only a dream. Chang is meant to be some kind of God figure, but his sense of justice has all the sensitivity and nuance of a vice-principal in a red state high school.
Indeed, for a film ostensibly about… an awakening to ethical principles (!?), Only God Forgives has little to say beyond “bad people are bad and should be punished,” whether on a character level or in terms of any kind of discourse. It indulges in the banal equation of childhood and innocence: Changs’s daughter specifically is fetishized for her childness, frozen and tiresomely protected in a world of homework and teddy bears. Refn denies children the dignity of an actual identity, of being the selfish, manipulative creatures God intended them to be.
These concerns would be minor if we were dealing with, say, a utilitarian Hong Kong action movie, but Only God Forgives in its presentation and pacing poses as an important-thoughts arthouse-auteur film.
“I’m an entertainer”
“How many cocks have you entertained in that cum dumpster of yours?”
Refn has made a point, in speaking of this film, of saying that good taste is the enemy of creativity, but the film never loses its slight whiff of IKEA. The dialog, as mentioned, is deliciously vulgar and Refn has his characters violate the usual social taboos and do the usual unthinkably bad things (incest — check; raping a minor — check; using the word white people should never use for African Americans — check). But true bad taste takes a personal stand and doesn’t give a shit. Refn just gets a bourgeois kick out of caricaturing the underclass.
Let us compare, for example, the final act of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, in which he indulges in baldly melodramatic devices to make us cry. That was bad taste used with intention — to stupidly manipulate our emotions — using the specifically American taste for bad taste to drive home the stupidity of our taste for the death penalty and our simplistic ideas of right and wrong. If von Trier’s bad taste had a trace of quotation marks around it, it was at least wielded in the first person. You could also argue that early John Waters movies did the kind of caricaturing Refn does here, but Waters’s characters were rooted in a genuine outsider consciousness; his desire to shock came from a snarling disdain for the middle class and the middlebrow. Refn’s characters feel calculated to shock; they invite ridicule; they feel built from the outside in.
“I’ll take care of the yellow nigger. Now get up and kiss your mother.”
In terms of visual style, this is an impressive film. The production design by Beth Mickle is on the whole wonderfully baroque, if at times it trawls too close to Bond-movie asiaphilia. A nightclub with a huge, framed picture of Michelangelo’s David is particularly inspired. The cinematography by Kubrick collaborator Larry Smith is elegant and polished, favoring Chinese reds, blacks, frosty blues, and greens (it’s Asia, remember?).
The performances are also quite good. Gosling dusts off the menacing stare from Drive, but actually takes it further; at times he’s genuinely terrifying. Visaya Pansringarm as Chang is fine in a profoundly silly role, and shows off some mad martial arts skills. Kristin Scott Thomas, perhaps wisely, makes no attempt to craft a plausible character: Crystal’s dialogue, as written, is cranked up to 10 throughout, so she just lets it rip. She’s too good an actress to fully believe what she’s saying, and sometimes that reads in her eyes, but she knows Refn has handed her line after line of grindhouse movie gold and she puts some scary cougar fangs into her delivery.
Funniest line in the movie: in an earnest, romantic moment, Julian tells the prostitute he’s kind of in love with, “I want you to meet my mother.” You have to wonder what Only God Forgives would have looked like if it were allowed to be the demented comedy it wants to be. Instead, Refn tries very hard to generate gravitas, with all the fanfare of a butler lifting the domed cover of a silver platter to reveal a bowl of Spicy Nacho Doritos.