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Drive might have earned Nicolas Winding Refn Best Director laurels at the 2011 Cannes film fest, but detractors rated the Ryan Gosling thriller over-heavy on ultraviolence and arthouse style, light on substance. Refn’s latest, Only God Forgives, again featuring Gosling, makes the dreamlike Drive look like realism. This year’s audience at Cannes was having none of it; Only God Forgives inspired boos, walkouts, few defenders. Here's a taste of the critical vitriol: "cinematic defecation," "the worst movie ever made," "pretentious macho nonsense." (Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian stands alone in his admiration for Refn's visceral dreamwork, calling it "emotionally breathtaking, aesthetically brilliant.") Readings of the film have by and large been almost willfully superficial, absent robust critical engagement.

I'd advise using your own judgment. Take a deep breath and dive into Refn's "destructive element." You may find the waters toxic, but Only God Forgives is a mesmerizing medium. This hallucinatory excursion may haunt you, the terrible beauty and relentless formality of its imagery persisting in the dark theater of your mind.

Whenever ordinary people don masks, strike iconic poses and act out, the resulting ritual/theater often teeters between high seriousness and hilarity. I’m thinking of (and you will too, watching Refn's mad movie) kabuki drama, rites of Communion, Greek or Jacobean tragedy, and on the cinematic front, Leone’s operatic corridas, Lynchian surrealism, apocalyptic parables by von Trier and, of course, Tarantino’s ecstatic celebrations of popular culture. Such highly stylized expressions of art and emotion require an act of faith on the part of their audiences, a willingness to remain spellbound for the duration—always assuming the suspension of disbelief is worth our while. Refn’s Only God Forgives demands that we give ourselves over to that kind of fugue-like state, to share in the antihero’s deeply Freudian descent into an Oedipal hell where the sweltering air he breathes is saturated with blood. (This fresh hell owes much to Beth Mickle's outstanding production design, as well as lush art direction by Russell Barnes and Witoon Suanyai.)

Only God Forgives doesn’t conventionally engage or move the viewer. We find ourselves in the presence of gods and demons in a lush, perilous underworld, witness to primal ritual, potentially cathartic theater. Think Gotterdammerung, a brutal struggle between righteous Father, monstrous Mother, and an irreparably broken Son. The movement of this old story is inexorable, each scene and standoff giving rise to and flowing into the next, an unstoppable tide of fate (kudos to Matthew Newman’s editing rhythms). That tide is aurally echoed in composer Cliff Martinez’ music, swelling with ecclesial melancholy and rising dread.

Refn has said that Only God Forgives is about a man chained to the womb, an insatiable mother as likely to fuck as to eat her offspring. In the beginning, there are two ensorcelled sons, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke). They run a sleazy Bangkok boxing ring, cover for drug smuggling. After a bout between diminutive kick-boxers, the brothers occupy space in a room drowned in darkness, the huge scarlet face of a demon dominating one wall. The two men are criss-crossed and branded by deep shadows, as though their “infection” was literally devouring their bodies. “Time to meet the devil,” Billy announces, heading out for a night of misogynistic mayhem that climaxes in his raping and beating to death a 16-year-old girl. Afterwards he waits for retribution, in a room almost literally awash in blood. This atrocity sets in motion a wheel of Old Testament justice and revenge. The morally still point at the center of that wheel is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, consistently cool), a Thai cop and priestly martial-arts master. Call him Father.

As that wheel turns, grinding dimmer reflections of archetypal Fathers and Sons/Daughters to death, we ride a camera that creeps, Shining-like, down red-suffused hallways papered in ornate designs, through forbidding doors, and into unlighted rooms—really, stages. (Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Eyes Wide Shut and Refn’s Bronson, is at the top of his game.) On a series of such stages, Julian watches avidly—hands tied to his chair—as his “entertainer” girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasures herself; dreams of standing on a threshold and plunging his hands into darkness, to have them chopped off by a hidden sword; takes his orders from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, stunning as horrific Medea mom, chewing scenery--and co-stars--with unrestrained relish), to avenge her first-born and favorite son’s death.

Billy’s dead, because Father Chang invited the prostitute’s dad to wreck revenge on her killer, enlarging the lake of blood. Out in the hallway, we watch the awful forms of paternal vengeance behind the door’s glass, cinematic shadowplay. Not much later, Chang draws his sword—the lethal weapon appears to reside in his spine—to punish the father who failed to protect his daughter. The wheel turns. Despite Monster Mom’s fatwa, Julian cannot bring himself to execute the dead girl’s grieving and maimed dad—though we learn that, back in the day, this mama’s boy committed patricide at her request. Refn’s Oedipal itinerary is predestined; potent Father must confront and exorcize man-killing/castrating Mother, perhaps redeeming a damaged Son.

At one point, in a sequence that imperceptibly morphs from normalcy to surreal, Julian hunts Chang down nighttime Bangkok streets full of moving traffic, all bathed in soft golden light. As Son seeks Father, the street scenes subtly alter, becoming more dreamlike, otherworldly, so that the pursuit turns archetypal. And then Chang just disappears. It’s a stylistic and emotional tour de force. (We seldom surface in Only God Forgives; this claustrophobic film mostly takes place underground, in artificial light and pitch-dark rooms. The notable exception is Julian's climactic Passion--en plein air--at the hands of the Father.

Reviewers have criticized Ryan Gosling for failure to emote in Only God Forgives. In stark contrast to his character in Drive, Gosling is no avenging angel, action hero or lover. His face frozen by old trauma, he plays Julian as a passive, shell-shocked boy at war with the “bad” hands he cannot control, the bad blood his demonic dam has bequeathed him. He tries to keep his rage in check (binding his hands, washing off imagined blood in a white basin)—in contrast to his brother’s maddened embrace of the female-hating devil inside him. So damaged he’s unable to successfully fight or fuck, Julian fantasizes slipping his hands inside his girlfriend or voyeuristically watches as her fingers slide in an out of her own body. His erotic focus echoes the camera’s lubricious slippage down endless corridors: always seeking a path back to the womb, the voracious maternal maw. His attempt to fight a phallic Father, Chang the cop, in the spotlighted center of his boxing gym, is pathetic. As Crystal prowls the perimeter like an angry leopard, Chang effortlessly beats her son to a pulp.

When Julian and his girlfriend join Crystal for dinner, she steadily insults both Mai—she has only contempt for “bitches”—and her disappointing son, going so far as to minimize his penis size as compared to Billy’s “enormous cock.” With her coarse blond mane, tacky, skintight couture and garish make-up, Scott Thomas is a stone-cold predator, a vulgar, soulless knock-off of Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. But take a good look at Julian’s expression while mom hammers him: His face is that of an abused child, sweet and open and perversely expectant as the blows (caresses?) fall. Ceremonially lighting her long, slim cigarettes, he honors her phallic power.

While Mother sharpens her teeth on her son’s psychic bones, Father Chang metes out awful torture and instant death all around the town—most dramatically in a nightclub full of blinking lights and paper flowers, where a gaggle of  beautiful young dolls, virginal in their retro “prom-queen” frocks and pearls pose under the dead eyes of tattooed thugs. Elsewhere, where cans of film line the walls, a grotesque little homunculus watches his father meet his end. And then out of the blue, the divine Chang takes center stage in a karaoke bar, warbling—in dead seriousness—a love song, aimed at his rapt “boys,” the cops who follow him faithfully. As lullabies go, it’s not bad, the opposite of the poisonous“siren song” of seduction with which Crystal tries to beguile her gelded son, foetally crouched in the corner of another black hole of a room, just one burning, disbelieving eye visible in the pulp of his battered face.

There will be one final bloody Communion for Julian, the last sacrilegious act in his drive to get back inside his mother’s body. Viscerally shattering to watch, this necessary ritual is only the prelude to Julian’s ultimate act of contrition, presided over by a sword-wielding Father, the cop who sets things right in the swampy environs of Only God Forgives. Julian's blood kin to that damned son who tore out his own eyes when he realized he’d mistakenly murdered his father and married his mother. Though Refn's drug-trip tragedy conjures classic Greek drama, its brutal power surely comes from the Old Testament:“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Straight Shooting, July 17, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy