The Act of Seeing: Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Cinema, down to its basest elements, is an act of voyeurism.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, peering into windows of lives we’ll never have comes with a certain sense of arousal, particularly if the imagery is forbidden. Few filmmakers indulge so freely in the world of forbidden arousal quite like Nicolas Winding Refn.
For better or worse (and many would argue it is much, much worse), NWR’s fascination with the perverse as rendered through neon baths and longing stares is cinema unrefined. He creates works that are so achingly cinematic that they often borders on unintentional self-parody. Many of us have heard a song and pictured it used in a swooning scene of some unformed movie in our head. Picture those scenes running on a loop; a fantasia of sight and sound, cohesive narrative be damned. He's the perversely phantasmagorical made celluloid, awash in bi-sexual violets.
That’s the way Nicolas Winding Refn's films unfold: moving images distilled to their purest essences. Still, in a career practically defined by indulgence, it’s the oft-maligned Only God Forgives (2013) where NWR dives headfirst into the throes of pleasure and pain; style as substantial freedom. Like David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), it was born out of his largest instance of mainstream success, rejecting the widespread acclaim of his L.A. noir, Drive (2011). Only where Lynch was sticking it to a network who'd hampered his original vision for the groundbreaking television series, Refn's more or less flipping off any film bro who purchased a scorpion jacket for their ever-growing closet of curious cinema inspired fashion choices.
Only God Forgives doubles down on the Scorpio(n) Rising of Drive, becoming an unambiguous fetish object. From the way the camera lingers on bodies, both intact and dismembered, to the wicked Oedipal Complex at the center of it all, to the deeply uncomfortable intoxication NWR has with Thai culture, every frame is designed to speak to something deep within you. It’s that latter fetishization - one of another culture - that may help explain the confusion, then ensuing revulsion, audiences had upon its release. While watching, we all become strangers in a strange land, as Refn leads us down nothing but problematic dark alleys, all but ensuring we squirm in our seats.
Coming so soon after NWR’s fruitful collaboration with Ryan Gosling in Drive (and that movie's near immediate cult success), Only God Forgives superficially appeared to be a reunion of movie star with his new favorite auteur. Gosling’s cool-as-ice Driver persona dropped into a South Asian fight film isn’t an idea without total merit. But that’s not what we got. Instead, Gosling plays the Driver's same brooding silence to the hilt, his grimace morphing into an Insta-worthy pout. That pout emits bursts of simpering rage that undercut his previous (and perhaps misperceived) heroic stoicism in Drive. No, this loser is a straight up mama’s boy with nothing going for him but looks. Looks that slowly become buried under swollen bruises and oozing lacerations, the result of fights that are over as quickly as they begin - Gosling's once beautiful mug transformed into little more than a deformed hamburger.
Of course audiences bounced off of this with extreme prejudice, and it's possible that was Refn's plan all along. NWR was trading on America’s fleeting fascination with South Asian action - what with The Raid (2011) being the other cult action fascination from 2011 - poking and provoking viewers before providing zero cathartic release. Gosling’s Julian is just another dweeb fascinated with codes of “honor” he thinks he understands because he’s mapped himself onto another culture. Meanwhile, his brother is a bona fide sex pest, whose death Julian sets out to avenge out of sheer obligation to blood and the exploitative martial arts business the two birthed and use as a front for trafficking of all sorts. Where Drive tricks you into thinking you're rooting for a real hero and a real human being, Only God Forgives holds true to it's title, presenting you with protagonists undeserving of anyone's pardoning.
Some viewers' fascination with NWR is seemingly born out of mystery and the very notion of gazing in on the grimy worlds he creates and populates with a bevy of fringe dwellers. One’s never too certain how seriously Refn’s taking this stuff, and with that confusion comes a desire to peel away the layers. All of his work is imbued with the kind of po-faced sincerity that you can’t quite parse as authentic or winking. It’s a dynamic he’s usually able to straddle well. Pomposity bubbles beneath his images but, more often than not, there’s a strain of humanity that manages to slither out from under all the rigid formalism.
In Only God Forgives, Refn’s given free reign to be as much of himself as possible. Gone is any semblance of realism or foolish binaries like “good" and "evil”. Instead, we’re thrust into the murky nightmare that comes from revenge. As Julian descends into the underworld searching for his brother’s killer, NWR repeatedly falls back onto prolonged shots of Gosling staring at his hands. At first, it’s so self serious that you have a hard time not laughing at the ostentatious portent, but that fleeting feeling of hilarity flows into something more nebulous. Julian’s horrified by the violence wrought by those hands just as we’re horrified by the sense of pleasure we derive from seeing it. NWR’s provocations become less silly and more frightening the longer we stare into his void, as he's all but daring us to look away.
This filmic staring contest circles back to Refn's innate understanding of cinema as voyeurism. Grisly imagery alone is sickening. Grisly imagery bathed in neon reds and blues is like hypnosis. He lulls you into a sense of security with an effortless merging of the wicked and the divine, but it’s what you aren’t seeing that creeps into your psyche. Deep within the shadows of every doorway and around every corner dwell our deepest fears. For Julian it’s his mother (a deliciously sadistic Kristen Scott Thomas). For every act of atrocity the avenger commits, his numbness is overtaken by what he thinks he sees in the darkness: the woman he can’t escape, a seductive, lethal queen.
Domineering mothers are a trope played out almost to exhaustion in fiction and you get the sense NWR knows this. Julian is unable to touch his lover Mai (Rhatha Phongam) in any meaningful way. Their “lovemaking” is itself an act of voyeurism: Julian tied to a chair as she pleasures herself. His mother hangs over him to a point of impotent rage, his hands (re: penis) useless unless he’s engaging in violence. The only time we see him put his hands on Mai is to choke her. It’s only natural, then, that the first and only time he tenderly touches a woman it’s when his mother is dead on the floor of a sword wound. Slowly, he slides his hand into the hole in her stomach, finally one with the mother who made him. The next (and last) time we see his hands they’re being cut off. It's NWR taking the Oedipal journey to its bleakest, hilariously self-serious conclusion.
Within the shadows, beyond the neon, lurks a demon for all of us. NWR recognizes this and it’s what makes his work so spellbinding. We may not have complexes about our mother or urges of violence like Julian, but in every one of us there exists temptation, in some form or another. What makes Only God Forgives stick is it's understanding that there’s no release within the temptation. Julian doesn’t overcome his mother. Hell, he doesn’t even get to kill her. He has a brief moment of reaching his desire but, by that point, any sense of catharsis has been stolen away from him, barely allowed an escape by the removal of his hands. As such, the audience is given no reprieve either. Our glimpses into temptation are always fleeting. Whatever demon we’re searching for within cinematic windows exists only within the parameters doled out by the filmmaker. All that’s left after it slinks away is you, sitting in the darkness, questioning your attraction to dark pleasures the screen keeps at arm's length. Only God Forgives doesn’t provide an answer to that, just another intoxicating hit of fantasy in its purest form.
Brandon Streussnig is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Playlist, Fangoria, and Film Combat Syndicate.