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.”