Sean K. Cureton

Recommendation of the Week: Only God Forgives (2013)

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Only God Forgives (2013)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Netflix Rating: Loved It

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives came out at the start of the summer of last year, and was immediately thrust into a critical and commercial pool of polarized reception, simultaneously applauded and vehemently derided. During the course of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, the audience, comprised of film critics and journalists, booed the film during the course of the screening, only to then honor it with a standing ovation and subsequent nomination for the Palme d’Or. As the film has been seen and distributed by and to a wider audience, such a polarized reaction to Refn’s spiritual successor to his objectively superior Drive has persisted. Only God Forgives is at times insufferably impressionistic, crafting a film narrative that has more to do with latent pseudo-psychological hang ups than with the more tangible on-screen violence and adrenaline fueled action that defines Drive. And yet, despite its creative and experimental excesses, Only God Forgives delivers as a spiritual sequel to Drive that not only continues the previous film’s rhetoric and deeply personal style of story telling, but augments and refines it into an even more fiercely original and impeccably crafted film.

Like Drive, Only God Forgives is concerned with a taciturn and reluctant hero, flung into action and retributive violence by those around him. However, where Drive starred a strong, vital, and thoroughly masculine protagonist, capable of skirting the line between masochistic fury and romantic sentimentalism with ease and punishing precision, Only God Forgives stars a pathetic and effeminate hero, essentially castrated by an overbearing mother whom he holds in dangerously high regard. In both films, American actor Ryan Gosling plays the hero, making the contrast between the two heroes all the more striking and unsettling. In Drive, Gosling is cool, efficient, and dangerous, leading the film into the familiar territory of overt, masculine heroism, undercut by a latent misogyny inherent to such a style. Only God Forgives finds Gosling faced with such misogyny as personified in another character for whom he feels an unremitting sense of disgust, almost as if he were actively rejecting the very character he had so recently portrayed himself.

In this way, Refn’s Only God Forgives provides another way of looking at his previous picture, complimenting and criticizing his own work within the confines of another film. This meta-critical aspect of Refn’s film is exactly what makes it so fascinating and rewarding to watch, as it not only picks up where Drive left off, but returns to the same fictive territory in order to reach a more complicated and disturbing conclusion. Rather than pandering directly to the more literal minded viewer who enjoyed the violence and empowering masculinity of Drive for its own sake, Refn chooses to examine, rather than placate, that very same literal mindedness more directly in Only God Forgives. By disempowering his hero, and by association his viewer, Refn makes the violence on screen even more aesthetically surreal and strange, divorcing it from any sense of retributive justice enjoyed more readily in his previous film. When Gosling’s hero is defeated at the end of the film, brutally beaten in a fight in which he holds no chance of winning, the very violence that the literal minded viewer went into the film seeking to find is finally awarded, only the understanding of that violence has changed, becoming unwieldy, self-destructive, and dissatisfying.

Only God Forgives is one of the most interesting films from the past year, as it engages with its audience in a way that very few films from its genre do. Where most action films are concerned with violence as fetish, closely associated with masculinity and justice, Refn quiet deftly analyzes said fetish, reducing it to its parts through pseudo-psychology and surrealism, Oedipal complexes and God-like characters included. Much like the early films of Clint Eastwood, Refn’s Drive falls prey to masochism and misogyny in its violence fetish, with the hero imposing his own form of fascist justice upon the world around him, while masquerading as the romanticized anti-hero. Only God Forgives is more self-aware of such a pitfall inherent to the action genre, turning the way that the audience views the on-screen violence around, thereby making a more nuanced and complicated film in the process. If Drive is the spiritual equivalent of Dirty Harry, then Only God Forgives follows in the footsteps of Unforgiven, both being great films, but with very different points of entry into understanding on-screen violence, justice, and masculinity.

Only God Forgives is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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