Funny thing… I was just about to write that while I like Refn’s movies in general, but have not been the greatest fan of “Drive”. To make sure that this is true, I was about to refer to my old post about “Drive” and realised there is none. I remember that Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling left me a bit confused about what I had just seen, I remember thinking that while I liked the stylized approach to making Gosling look cool and mysterious, and while I appreciated how some minimalist set pieces pieces played out (elevator!), I was stuck with appreciating “Drive” rather than liking or loving it. My admiration for Refn comes in particular from “Bronson” and also to some extent from “Valhalla Rising”. I think it comes down to preferring him as a media artist rather than an action director. If I can put up the movie on the home screen with the lights out, admiring the images like a succession of Brueghel paintings, taking in the often fabulous soundtracks of his movies, allowing myself to ignore any sense of plot and drama, then it works.
This intro was to summarise why I liked “Only God Forgives” a lot, even though it’s not a movie. It is an excess of atmospheric images, sometimes still, sometimes dynamic, with the director and DP clearly having fallen in love with the very different visual setting that a location like Bangkok provides. Actually to the point of working the cliché rather than the reality of the place, which would be a problem would the whole film not have this dreamy nature. Shadows breaking through red corridors. Beautiful women with alabaster skin listening with closed eyes to most gory atrocities as if it they were some bunch of middle-class ladies attending a particularly moving piano recital. A fistfight between the two antagonists choreographed like the antithesis of a fist fight between antagonists, but staged and lit so beautifully! An eerie soundtrack blanketing the banalities of human dialogue or pleading. A “hero” who was paid for looking sad and lost, and who was certainly not paid for learning lines (I think Gosling has about 5 sentences to speak in total). A wicked witch of a mother who seems to be built on what “Wild at Heart” left over for evil mother figures to work with. Singing blades and singing blade-slingers. Characters with honour and characters without. Evil deeds and necessary retribution.
I can understand that many people do not like this compilation of allegories. Had Refn made this film right after “Bronson”, nobody would have had a right to complain. With “Drive”, he created a misunderstanding about what kind of artist he is, and seeing “Only God Forgives” appears to be some form of corrective measure in that respect. Not the kind who would enjoy car chases and sword fights for the wrong reasons. Rather the kind who uses those elements, over-stylizes them and sets them up as tools to illuminate the human condition. And if the style is perceived to be excessive, so be it. David Lynch is excessive, and mostly for very good reasons. Those two have a lot in common, it seems to me. And in a good way!