"The worst film I have ever seen. " These words came far too easily out of my mouth last night after fidgeting through the drone chamber that is Only God Forgives. The second collaboration between ubiquitous star Ryan Gosling and acclaimed director Nicholas Winding Refn has really divided opinion since its Cannes debut. For every gushing review ("every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance" or "a psychoanalyst's wet dream – when can we see it again?") there appear to be rows of film fans running for the exit or taking to the internet to pithily share their disdain, regardless of any skewed expectations they might have had after watching Drive.
That's fine, I thought. I'm not afraid of the dark, the symbolic, the more minimal frames of film. Nor do I get squeamish at more harrowing fare such as Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void or Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. Painfully long one-take assaults like those in The Killer Inside Me and Irreversible … of course. I caught the trailer but avoided reviews, determined to watch without prejudice. But when a story is so unappealing and thin that it's barely there, spliced into a gratuitous stream of graphic imagery, you can only emerge after 90 minutes feeling empty and confused.
This morning I awoke in a more forgiving mood, ironically. There is a line that comes to mind from Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind, elsewhere credited to poet Cesar A Cruz, which reads: "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." A noble sentiment and one that bears particular relevance to less narrative-driven forms of film. I do not feel comfortable in life but then again, I welcome disturbance from time to time. Refn is an auteur, as evidenced by this highly stylised and brutal run of films including the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising. His impulse is to experiment and to evoke feeling, and not to pander to an audience. I do admire that conviction, a determination to not play by the rules. Provoking a reaction, positive or negative, is arguably better than being bland, derivative and forgettable. But self-indulgence at the expense of entertainment?
Admittedly there is clever conceit at play here: making a revenge film without a hero. Smashing preconceptions of a westerner in the east. Gosling has said as much in an interview where, after coming onto the project at the last minute to replace Refn's first-choice actor, he influenced the direction and tone of the project to make it less "corny" (a la Van Damme), even if it meant ignoring his three months of Muay Thai training and "getting his ass kicked". The actor should be commended for trying to avoid stereotypical all-American roles where the handsome good guy saves the day and gets the girl (The Place Beyond the Pines certainly benefitted from his surprisingly quick demise). However this is the second film in which he looks as po-faced, catatonic and disinterested as the rest of us. Does the film benefit from this conceit? Hardly.
Only God Forgives is a morality play, set in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok – all drug dealers, prostitutes, neon-lit back alleys and karaoke bars. The 'sheriff of this town' is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the Katana-blade-wielding "Angel of Vengeance" on whom the fate of all rests, it seems. When the brother of Thai boxing club owner Julian (Ryan Gosling) murders a prostitute – in the first 10 minutes of the film – he sets in motion a chain of bloody and despicable events from which few emerge with their lives, let alone any dignity. The big problem? He's not a nice person, so who cares if his death is avenged or not? The same goes for Julian and Chang. Dialogue is so minimal and the backstories largely untouched that the audience can barely bring themselves to invest emotionally in the story. There's no one to root for in this infernal hole.
Refn has referred to Only God Forgives as his fetish film and described how he tried to shoot it like a pornographer. Alarm bells are ringing when you hear a director utter lines like this: "Well, art is an act of violence. It is about penetration, about speaking to our subconscious and our moods at different levels." I would argue that the result is neither engaging nor arousing. Quite the opposite. The violence is relentless and almost laughable: dismemberment, stabbing, eye gouging… If the message is that humans are violent creatures, I got the point in the first 10 minutes.
Then there are the lame and highly inconsequential visual metaphors at play: singing detective Chang entertaining his men with ballads about lost love in the karaoke bar; the dream sequences where Chang appears to come for Julian, like a grim reaper stalking a man with a guilty conscious; the Oedipal relationship between Julian and his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas as Donatella Versace on a very bad day) and that moment where he appears to feel his way back into the womb where he longs to be once again; or the scenes where Gosling, hands tied, watches impotently as prostitute Mai, the girl he asks to pretend to be his girlfriend at a particularly cringeworthy dinner with Crystal, pleasures herself.
These are all fragments of memories from a hugely disappointing night at the cinema. The overriding message, reading very closely but imaginatively between the lines, is that the world has been drained of humanity, and all that is left is retribution with precious little hope of atonement. According to Crystal, Julian apparently killed his father with his bare hands and is "a very dangerous boy". Does he secretly long for someone to put him out of his misery? He has fled to Bangkok, a nether world of sin, to not only evade the authorities but also his past. He's a mummy's boy who always played second fiddle to his older brother and so desperately covets her love it's pathetic but not pitiful. He's the owner of a boxing club that can't fight (remember the bravado of sleeve rolling and prey circling before his pasting at the hands of Chang). He's the man boy who can't be intimate with women. And he's the bully who picks on the innocent (the two men who offer him a drink in the club).
So is this the worst film I have ever seen? Probably not. Only God Forgives, like its main character, has few redemptive qualities, asking barely any questions and certainly giving no meaningful answers. Larry Smith's cinematography may beguile you, Cliff Martinez's score may linger in the air. But you can't help but feel that with more disciplined direction, character development and a stronger spine to the narrative, Refn's 'eastern' could have taken us to a more richly rewarding place. A mesmeric, unsettling yet enjoyable detour in the mould of Lynch, von Trier or Cronenberg at their best. Unfortunately this film will probably be consigned to the pit of perverse and trashy vanity projects that directors and actors live to regret.