Usually there’s a time of year where I get worn down by the amount of films I end up watching, and I find myself craving something different. Apparently different means longer, extensive storytelling in the form of seasons of various television shows. Spring is typically the time where I indulge in my worst habit: binge watching. Last spring alone, I watched all of Sherlock, House of Cards, Mad Men, and the third season of my favorite television show, Game of Thrones. However, I soon realized that my television fix couldn’t be contained in just the spring. Over the summer, I ended up watching all of The Sopranos, and in the fall, I watched all of The Wire, both for the first time. And again, I’ve begun this new year by watching the third series of Sherlock, HBO’s brilliant new series True Detective, season 2 of House of Cards, and I eagerly await the return of my favorite shows in the next few months. There’s no arguing against the fact that television has positively taken off as a medium over the last decade. Many have hailed it as a new Golden Age of television, and I certainly agree. These shows, along with the likes of Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Masters of Sex, Top of the Lake, Behind the Candelabra, 30 Rock, Veep, and Arrested Development, along with countless others, have demonstrated there is an incredible abundance of quality programs in a variety of genres. Coinciding with the rise in quality television has been the rise of the antihero protagonist. Characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Jimmy McNulty and Omar Little, and Frank and Claire Underwood are all iconic, or on the verge of becoming iconic, and they all fit the antihero mold. All of them constantly make questionable decisions and perform horrible actions with disregard for the consequences they face and those lives they crush or extinguish in the process. These individuals have a penchant for the violent and destructive, but they are also deeply wounded souls. Nobody lashes out just because they feel like it, they do so because they are constantly tormented by their personal demons lurking beneath the surface. Such conflicted, morally-compromised characters are intriguing to us. How else do you explain this phenomenon in current television? But what does that say about our current culture and what we deem as being acceptable? Do we see ourselves reflected in them, or do we wish to live vicariously through their actions? As a culture, are we glorifying or condemning these characters and their actions?
In a previous entry, I lauded The Tree of Life as the best film of 2011. Coming in at a close second was director Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, a masterful, neon-noir crime-thriller with deceptive direction that earned Refn the Best Director award at 2011’s Cannes Film Festival, which also awarded The Tree of Life it’s prestigious Palme D’Or honor the same year. Following it’s Cannes unveiling, Drive continued to be critically praised upon limited and wide release, though it predictably found no such love with the Academy. With such adoration, Refn’s follow-up feature was bound to draw excessive hype and anticipation, helped along by the presence of Drive stars, Ryan Gosling and neon lights. The set up doomed Only God Forgives for critical failure from the start. Nothing could possibly live up to the expectations, and many found themselves walking out of a film they were hoping was going to be something else. With such lambasting spreading all across the internet, I found myself with my own anticipation crushed, but still willing to give it a shot. I had been a fan of Refn since his atypical biopic examination of notorious English prisoner and criminal, Charles Bronson, proved star Tom Hardy was a talent to keep your eyes on. Though I confess to having only seen Bronson and Drive, it’s clear Refn has a fascination for the darkness in human beings, hidden or widely apparent. Never before have I seen a filmmaker so brutally and explicitly examine violence as a form of expression. It’s his interest in discovering what brings out the worst in human nature that makes his films unique and weirdly fascinating, but ultimately incredibly dark. Going in, you shouldn’t expect something fun, but rather something unsettling. Only God Forgives is certainly his darkest and most brutal film yet, and undoubtedly his most unsettling. At the same time, it’s his most inaccessible, dense, and widely open to interpretation creation. Despite its divisive nature, I believe it’s destined to become a cult classic, and I personally found much to admire about it.
For Drive, Refn found in Gosling an enigmatic presence, rich and layered in it’s stoicism and Frank Bullitt-esque coolness. In their second collaboration, the stoicism is ramped up, in a manner that is easily dismissible by many as “emoting nothing” or “not acting”, though is much more interesting to examine in what it says about the character and his own journey. Julian runs a Thai boxing club in Thailand with his brother, Billy, that poses as a front for a drug smuggling operation. It’s clear from the onset that this an abstract, metaphorical tale, as the red-glowing demonic head looms symbolically over the sparring combatants in the film’s opening sequence. Gosling’s is a performance to match the eerie material, occasionally hinting at his internal conflict through only his eyes, which betray the saddened, broken, and wounded shell of a man beneath. In the film’s early scenes, while Julian visits a prostitute named Mai, he chooses rather to watch, his hands bound to the chair. Julian does not appear to enjoy Mai’s sexual display. Instead, he seems to turn inward, seemingly horrified by a past that has led him to such sexual repression. In another encounter with Mai, he lashes out in violence when disturbed by the laughter of two gentlemen in the same room, smashing a glass in one’s face and brutally beating him. It doesn’t take long to understand why Julian’s repression exists. When Billy is murdered in retribution for raping and killing an under-age prostitute, Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal, shows up to bury her son’s body and avenge his death. Julian’s first glimpse of her through the doorway and initial interactions with her define his obscure nature and actions. Again, his eyes indicate everything as she alternately embraces him and ridicules him. Perhaps most shocking is Julian’s apparent indifference as his mother berates both himself and Mai, posing as his girlfriend, over dinner. Mai shoots glances across the table, unsettled by the ridicule, but also upset that Julian refuses to show any emotion at all. When Mai questions him, he suddenly becomes aggressive and violent, less frustrated with her than himself. It’s an interesting performance, perhaps somewhat faulty for how internalized it is, but important that it be so as to reflect his incredibly numbed and guarded persona. Surprisingly, Gosling wasn’t Refn’s first choice for the role (Luke Evans was originally in talks but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with The Hobbit), but he is an ideal match. It isn’t until later that we realize Julian’s, and Gosling’s, appearance is an immaculate facade, and after taking a severe beating, he has physically taken on the bruised, wounded, broken, and defeated human being he was beneath. Only then can he come to terms with his personal demons.
In Crystal, Kristin Scott Thomas creates one of the most nightmarish monstrosities of a mother to ever grace the screen. In a perfect world, such bold and stylistically appropriate work would be rewarded with an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but the world isn’t perfect. Instead, it is a gem of a performance to be appreciated by those who are willing to give the film a chance. Many have dismissed Thomas’ portrayal as pure camp, but that viewpoint refuses to accept the unique style of the film. Known for her excellent work in period costume dramas, it’s great to see her tear into someone so truly reprehensible. In a film of veiled individuals with very little to say, she is the unsettling exception. We know from her first emasculating interaction with Julian that their relationship has a scarring past just from her commanding nature and the way she hugs his body and strokes his muscles. Her actions speak a thousand words, but she also has more than enough to say, and her brutal, blunt verbal lashings are just as shocking as the inevitable onslaught of violence. With bleach blonde hair, generously applied makeup, and form fitting clothing, Crystal could easily fit in with the wives on The Sopranos in appearance, but her dominance suggest she could go toe to toe with Tony Soprano himself. It’s heightened, but Thomas refuses to let it dip into caricature. It’s clear that Crystal truly believes all of her actions are justifiable, which makes her that much more human and that much scarier. On the other end of the spectrum is Lieutenant Chang, a force of obscure justice, portrayed to chilling effect by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang is less a character and more of an abstract concept, seen as an “Angel of Vengeance” rather than a police lieutenant. Like someone who might have read the Old Testament one too many times, his idea of retribution is a truly savage one. He stalks the streets and shadows with a haunting presence and carrying a hidden short sword with which to administer his justice. His only demonstration of emotion is when he sings karaoke for his fellow policemen. It’s a unique choice that I’m not sure I quite understand, but one that works with the world Refn has created. Pansringarm is frighteningly devoid of any remorse or regret as he butchers those who he deems deserving of his punishing cleave. In a way, he might even be akin to Gosling’s Driver from Drive, an almost modern mythical force of violence like some kind of character you’d find in a spaghetti western with a mysterious past and a deft hand. Given that Chang represents more of an idea than an actual person, it’s an awkward space to fill, but Pansringarm strikes an eerie note that I feel few others could have pulled off so simply.
The screenplay, written by Refn himself, might be flawed and criticized for being short and arguably not a story at all, but the film is largely about the visual storytelling and more of an examined idea than an elaborate tale. Stylistically, it feels like a hybrid Kubrick-Lynch nightmare that moves like molasses deeper and deeper into the darkness of the human soul. All of Refn’s directorial choices appear to have been made with this slow, lulling effect in mind. It’s a technique Refn seemed to have mastered with the opening portion of Drive, before he abruptly slammed the audience with terrifyingly realistic violence. Only God Forgives has arguably less of a build, and feels ultimately more like a purposefully unnerving roller-coaster of manipulation and alarming imagery. Lensed by Larry Smith, who previously collaborated with Refn on Bronson, Bangcock comes alive bathed in neon pink and blue light like some otherworldly dystopia waiting to envelop it’s inhabitants that seem to glide through the frame rather than walk. It takes on a life of its own; a freakish, pulsing purgatory or hell on earth, with a thick air that agitates the mind and soul. Not only does Smith demonstrate his mastery of color palette, but also the confining elements of enclosed spaces. I found myself reminded more than once of the one-point perspective that was such a staple of Kubrick’s visual style, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that Smith had worked with Kubrick on his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Smith’s choices of light sources are unique when combined with the other design elements, casting light and shadows in fascinating shapes on objects and forms in frame, particularly Gosling’s hunched, beaten body (seen above, at the top of the post). My favorite choice has to be that the climactic fight between Chang and Julian isn’t shot in the same eerie slow close-ups, but rather in barbaric, merciless real time from mostly wide and overhead shots that display the combatants once again under the demonic light behind them. Each landed punch and crippling blow somehow resonates more from such distance, which is not only an acknowledgement of Smith’s skill, but also the disconcerting sound work on the film. Everything is unnaturally quiet until the harsh chords of violence break the uncomfortable silence. Well, to say it is silent is a dishonor to Cliff Martinez’s distinct compositions, which certainly enhance the mood of the whole piece. Martinez’s score pulsates, it’s synth beats providing the slowed heartbeat of the film itself, soothing the audience in this disturbed dream, but also ramping it up when necessary. Again, in a perfect world, such technical excellence would be acknowledged at the Oscars, regardless of the deemed overall quality of the product, but, again, no such luck. It’s all assembled by Refn in a sinister fashion that will ultimately speak to your taste or not. If anything, at least it’s a marvel of pure craft.
Refn once again proves to be a master of violence. In our current world, many are often desensitized by the amount violence that is present in the medium and our daily lives. It’s incredible, then, that Refn can achieve displays of violence in his films that are still shocking and unsettling, placing the emphasis less on the coolness and more on the truly horrific, the nature with which we should view all violence. Such boldness in art should be celebrated, but perhaps this particular film is too distant for many to reach and appreciate. Still, Only God Forgives seems to have a lot to say, meditating not just on the violence, but what provokes it. It features many evocative images, but none more featured than the image of hands. Open, they have the potential to be inviting and compassionate, but when they are closed, they suggest guardedness and a more aggressive nature. Ultimately, Julian is a closed fist, a shielded individual who would rather repel the world through indifference than embrace reality. His primary form of expression is to lash out, to punch, to attack because anything else would open the hand, accepting his haunting past. It is only through his physical transformation from a severe pummeling that we can symbolically see the tortured soul beneath. Julian’s journey is one, I think, of acceptance and atonement. Having literally fought so long to protect himself, to keep everything hidden and repressed, he has morphed into a seemingly unfeeling shell of a human being, distant from reality, but willing to cut down, verbally or physically, those who threaten to break through. He is not only haunted by the image of Chang and his warped justice, but also his overbearing and abusive mother. The presence of both almost demand the release of everything he has kept locked away. Julian’s fight with Chang is a final attempt to keep that hand closed, but it’s as if he is challenging some supernatural and inevitable force, and it breaks him wide open. Apparently the film’s concept came to Refn when his wife was pregnant with their second child. He felt he had so much pent up anger and violence that he didn’t know how to let out, as well as so many existential questions, and the only one he felt could answer to such questions and human suffering was God. He imagined himself actually having a physical fight with God. Now, make of that what you will, but I believe the fight between Chang and Julian is the centerpiece of the film. It is only after that encounter that Julian is able to face his past, to save a life, and to let go of the violence, as his final scene suggests. In my mind, it’s less of a violent moment than it is a release, a freeing of the soul.
So, what is it for me that ultimately makes Julian a compelling character and Only God Forgives a thought provoking film? It’s altogether a disturbingly violent composition with characters who move from one horrifying action to the next, so why watch it? Why put yourself through such torture? I would say the same reason we are fascinated in the actions of modern television antiheroes: they show us something human in an unflattering light and plumb the depths of darkness and conflict of the human psyche. Such examination can be alarming and off-putting, but it’s because we recognize that there is truth in it. We would rather not watch something we might deem as dispiriting, but, as a result, we might not be willing to accept that such aspects of our human experience exist. Then, in a way, we are closing our own fist, shutting ourselves off from certain realities in our world. But, if we give it a chance, we can realize that the characters that feel the most real are the ones who are flawed. It is ingrained in human beings that we are imperfect, yet we strive for perfection, and thus we can hurt others if we demand more or expect more from them than is possible. Admitting hurt and pain and faults can be an undesirable thing, so we fight it, we bury it, we repress it so that it can’t come out or happen again, but we fail to realize how destructive or unsympathetic we can become as a result. Ultimately, I believe that’s what Only God Forgives is suggesting, that a source of violence is our desire to hide what’s most vulnerable about ourselves as human beings. Violence springs from our inability to let others in and understand. It’s the absence of compassion. If we let others in, if we are vulnerable to others and they, in turn, are sympathetic with us, we can remove violence from the equation. When we watch these iconic modern characters, we might just realize that they are shining a light on our current world, a world where the violent, destructive, and hurtful are sometimes celebrated, even honored, and we should be unsettled by it because that’s the point. It’s a challenge, a challenge to realize the ugly truth, a challenge to accept it as realistic, and, ultimately, a challenge to take steps to change our world for the better. Recognizing our flaws correlates with our ability to understand, empathize, and forgive. Forgiveness is the antidote to anger and suffering. By forgiving, we can heal those scars that many of us carry during our lives, that bring out the darkness in many of us. Perhaps, when faced with the artistic expression of the reality of human nature, we are able to forgive ourselves and our own self-hatred and loathing over wounds of the past, and move forward in a more understanding and compassionate life. Maybe the fact that, as the title of the film suggests, God is the only one capable of forgiveness isn’t an ominous statement. Could it be that it is a challenge to all of us, that we should strive to be forgiving ourselves? Just a thought.