Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled, and bored stiff case file #52: Only God Forgives

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 American breakthrough film, Drive, had a cultural significance that transcended its box-office performance. It was an instant touchstone in the cinema of cool that transformed Ryan Gosling from a well-liked young star into a contemporary Steve McQueen as good as any actor alive at not saying anything at all. The film established Gosling as the ultimate strong, silent type, a soulful and sensitive loner whose mournful eyes and perpetually haunted expression betray a profound inner sadness.


The protagonist’s scorpion jacket ignited the imagination of hipsters and cinephiles alike. The film gave Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman some of the best roles of their careers (and they’ve had some good ones) and should have garnered Albert Brooks a long-overdue Academy Award (or at least a nomination). At least Brooks had the consolation that his performance, and the film, would be lovingly remembered long after most of the Oscar bait it competed against has been forgotten.

Following the ecstatic critical response Drive received, and the instant cult that grew up around it, a lot of filmmakers would make a play for big mainstream recognition. They’d leverage the heat of a movie that everyone seemed to love—even if it didn’t make money in the United States—into becoming a bankable commercial filmmaker. Winding Refn went in the opposite direction. Instead of making a more palatable commercial film that might impress people who dug Drive’s style but were put off by its grim neon fatalism, the director made a movie that doubled down on everything that people found objectionable or even repulsive about the previous film.


If people were put off by the graphic violence in Drive, they were liable to be sickened by the stomach-churning ultra-violence of Only God Forgives. If Drive’s characters were dark and complicated strugglers on the fringes of the criminal world, Only God Forgives’ characters boast a level of psychotic amorality not generally seen in pop culture outside of comic book supervillains. The movies’ characters run the gamut from sketchy and amoral to evil incarnate.

In a film culture that elevated the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino to the status of gods, Only God Forgives was seen as going too far. Where Drive won raves, Only God Forgives was lustily booed at its Cannes debut. Winding Refn critics saw the film’s unapologetic, unrelenting nastiness as proof that the filmmaker was all style and no substance, a provocateur whose films had gorgeous visuals but fatally lacked a soul and a conscience. They called it everything from “an unwatchable atrocity” (New York Daily News) to “just about the worst f—king thing I’ve ever seen” (New York). Rex Reed opined that Only God Forgives “may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five,” while Jeffrey Wells dipped deep into his big bag of forceful adjectives and deemed it, “a shit macho fantasy—hyper-violent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious.” He then claimed, “I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled, and bored stiff.”


The fact that audiences and critics found the film detestable seems at least partially by design. Instead of making a movie for a mainstream audience, Winding Refn made a bold provocation so extreme it was destined to alienate even some of his core cultists. Only God Forgives courts love and hate equally.

Winding Refn has described Only God Forgives as both a Western and a fairy tale, and the plot benefits from a sort of archetypal simplicity. In a performance that feels like an extension of his turn in Drive, Gosling stars as Julian, an American expatriate making a sordid living in Bangkok working in the drug trade. Julian’s dark life grows even darker when he finds out that his older brother Billy raped and murdered a prostitute, and was in turn murdered by the father of the prostitute, who doubled as her pimp. Julian understandably has complicated feelings about his brother being killed as retribution for such a heinous crime, but his dragon-queen mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a foul-mouthed Lady MacBeth, has no qualms about revenge, or morality overall. When Julian tells a vengeance-crazed Crystal that her other son died because he raped and killed a teenaged prostitute, she replies with an icy, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” In her upside-down world, such an act is, if anything, a healthy display of aggression and virility. The biggest crime in Crystal’s eyes is weakness, and when Julian doesn’t leap at the prospect of murdering the people his mother feels must be killed, she sees in him the most unforgivable of sins.


Only God Forgives is similar to previous case-file entry The Counselor, another movie that is vulgar and pulpy to an almost parodic, surreal level, yet obsessed with its own fussy artistry. Only God Forgives and The Counselor belong equally to the art house and the grind house. It’s tempting to say that Winding Refn’s dazzling style elevates trash to the level of art, but the film suggests that the two are closely intertwined: that the artistry of the execution gives trash a new luster, while the trashiness of pretty much everything in Only God Forgives lends its artistry a swampy darkness.

Like Drive, Only God Forgives is defined less by its extraordinary violence than by its overwhelming sense of melancholy, alienation, and spiritual corruption. If the film feels empty and hollow throughout, that’s a reflection of the world it inhabits and its characters. It’s an achingly sad movie about a man wrestling with a destiny he does not embrace or understand and a family that’s like the Manson family, only they’re less moral and more violent and all related. As in Drive, Winding Refn benefits from a lead character who can conveys volumes without saying a word, a beautiful, effortlessly charismatic man whose resting face is a source of infinite fascination. Gosling speaks less than 20 lines in the film, but Only God Forgives is not a film driven by words or dialogue or action. It might actually work just as well, or even better, as a silent film, where there is nothing to distract from the dark gorgeousness of the imagery and the moodiness of Cliff Martinez’s elegant score.


The glacially paced movie is methodical and hypnotic, a consummate mood piece awash in lurid reds and gaudy blues. It’s a film of painterly compositions and complete authorial control; just about every image begs to be hung in a frame and displayed in a pop-art gallery. The pervasive sense of loneliness and rootlessness is enhanced by the international nature of the production. It’s a contemporary neo-noir (although in this case, the word “noir” somehow doesn’t seem dark enough) written and directed by a Danish filmmaker with an American star, a British female lead, and a Bangkok setting, resulting in a film without a country or a home about protagonists who are outsiders wherever they go.

Only God Forgives is often serious to the point of solemnity. But any film that has Crystal, upon being told that her son’s girlfriend is an entertainer, respond with, “An entertainer? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?” cannot entirely be accused of lacking a sense of humor, however grim and morbid that might be. Yet for a film of such intense, exhaustive vulgarity, Only God Forgives is also surprisingly quiet and dour for long stretches, before that quiet is abruptly broken by intense periods of hyper-stylish ultra-violence. The film makes a virtue of going too far, and it’s never more transgressive than when, late in the movie, a psychologically destroyed Julian sees his mother’s corpse, belly sliced wide open, and places his hands inside her stomach and feels her womb with his hands. Literally and figuratively, it’s an intensely visceral moment that combines multiple strains of transgression in one unforgettable image: penetration and sex and violence and blood and incest and trauma spurting out in red rivers of human ugliness and gothic aesthetic beauty. That moment and many others in Only God Forgives are unforgettable in a post-traumatic stress disorder kind of way, but it’s rare that a film makes as strong an impression, positive or negative, as this one does. Winding Refn’s widely maligned exercise is equal parts dream and nightmare. It’s both a dark fantasy to get lost in, and a hell to escape.


The world may have angrily rejected Only God Forgives, but it’s the work of a true auteur, a maverick intent on pursuing his idiosyncratic vision even if it sickens and disgusts his audiences. Hell, it seems like Winding Refn was particularly intent on pursuing his vision if it sickened and disgusted audiences. And if that was his intention, he certainly got his wish.

Only God Forgives feels like a film Winding Refn had to get out of his system, a demon he had to purge from his suffering soul. I’m glad he did, but now that he has taken this particular strain of tough-guy fatalism as far as it can go without veering into snuff film territory, I’d love to see him venture into new directions, like putting his Kubrickian visual mastery to work on a Star Wars movie. Heaven knows, those characters have some messed-up family dynamics, and when it comes to ominous, malevolent parental figures, Crystal is like Darth Vader, only considerably less pleasant.


Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success

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