I Saw the Devil
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.
Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.
Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.
Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.
Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.
As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.
Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.
But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.
What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.
Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.
What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.
While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.
(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)