At first glance, Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2011 crime drama Drive, appears to be more of the same: Ryan Gosling once again stars as a man of few words who gets dragged into the criminal underworld, with Bangkok replacing Los Angeles this time.
Ten minutes in, though, you realize that the new movie is an entirely different beast — a more primal, brutal, near-plotless experience.
“There’s a record I really love called Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed,” Refn says. “It’s an album he made after Transformer, which was a wonderful, lyrical record. But with Metal Machine Music, what you hear is what you get — just guitar feedback mixed at different speeds. I thought it would be interesting to make a film that worked in a similar way, a movie almost designed like a pin-up magazine that was purely about what arouses me and what frightens me.”
Like Reed’s record, the result is much less accessible than Refn’s previous films. Only God Forgives, which opens Friday, co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s monstrous mother and Vithaya Pansringarm as a cop who metes out justice like an avenging angel. The movie was booed by some critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the same place where Refn won the Best Director prize for Drive two years earlier. Among the most common complaints was the film was laughably pretentious, hollow and needlessly violent.
“A lot of people have seen the film and immediately dismissed it,” says Thomas, whose flamboyantly evil character was designed as a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace. “But then they wake up the next morning, and the movie is still in their heads. People watch movies on different levels, but the surface level of this one is not the most interesting. It’s a film that needs a great deal of personal interpretation. It has this way of getting into your head, because it’s so beautiful but also so frightening. If you can give into it and stop worrying about plot and stuff like that, you will have an amazing experience.”
Thomas, who is usually cast in tony, upscale dramas ( The English Patient, Gosford Park), admits she initially thought her agent had made a mistake when he sent her the script and she read it. But she took the role after watching some of Refn’s previous films, including Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Her volcanic performance as a manipulative, demanding shrew with a voracious sense of entitlement and no redeeming qualities is unlike any she’s given before.
“It was hard to play, because she is so outrageous and unpleasant and horrible,” Thomas says of her character. “There is a scene in which Ryan meets me at a restaurant for dinner and brings a prostitute as his date. Nicolas said we needed something really horrible for me to say to her. He asked us ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard someone say to describe a woman?’ Ryan suggested that word [a profane sexual slur]. But I couldn’t say it. I just couldn’t. I kept flubbing the line, and we had to do multiple takes. You start feeling down when you have to be mean to people all the time. I wanted to have something nice to say!”
Unlike Thomas, Gosling didn’t have much dialogue to wrangle: His character in Only God Forgives speaks even less than his taciturn driver in Drive.
“Silent acting is the oldest form of acting in the world,” Refn says. “But it’s also the hardest to play, because we’re used to using words to make the audience understand what’s happening. Silence makes it much more about interpretation. Because there was so much attention paid to Gosling’s stillness in Drive, there’s this perception that his performance in this movie is just the same thing.
“But Drive was designed entirely around that character’s silence. This one is very different. Ryan and I talked about the idea of a man who is chained to his mother and controlled by her. It’s almost as if she’s put a spell on him and has taken away his willpower. He’s like the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s an extreme and heightened reality.
“People tend to forget that Hamlet is a man who has no will of his own. He’s constantly pushed around by other people who are taking advantage of him. But audiences are used to seeing male protagonists in movies be all about action and decisiveness. That’s what defines the gender. Just because you reverse that doesn’t mean you remove the urgency of the story. It just becomes quiet. Filmmaking has become so traditional and conventional. This movie requires you to engage with it in a different way than most other movies and interpret things for yourself. That’s when art becomes interesting.”
Although there isn’t anything quite as graphic as the elevator scene in Drive, Only God Forgives has moments of hair-raising violence, although a lot of the brutality happens outside the frame this time, making you think you’ve seen more than you did.
Still, there are sequences in which the camera doesn’t look away, including a surreal torture scene inside an elegant karaoke bar that is as hard to watch as the ear slicing in Reservoir Dogs.
“There’s a great satisfaction in watching cinematic violence,” Refn says. “It’s designed in a way that feels like this great release. It arouses us. We fear it, but we also accept it as a savior. It can be very pleasurable or very horrifying. The violence in this film has a sexual aesthetic to it. The character of the policeman is like God walking the Earth, the Old Testament version of God. Even though we’re taught not to enjoy the oldest form of justice, which is an eye for an eye, we’re still rooted in it and take pleasure from it.”