Nicolas Winding Refn has managed to merge the seemingly unmergeable Kubrick and Lynch in this nightmarish modern take on the Oedipus myth. Both Kubrick and Lynch use an aesthetic that may at first seem impenetrable, but they have varied greatly in their approaches; Kubrick being more methodical and logical in his creation process, Lynch being more emotional and referential. Refn takes the painstaking time to turn every frame into a work of art and builds one of the most haunting horror films I’ve seen in a while. The foreboding soundtrack and ominous tracking shots remind me of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Refn’s dark caricatures would feel right at home up against Kubrick’s psychopathic Jack Torrence or Pvt. Pyle, or Lynch’s sexually incongruous Benjamin Horne or Frank Booth. Refn builds on the horrific qualities that Kubrick introduced in The Shining and aspires to something more akin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks series on acid. Slap a velvet curtain in front of any of the numerous karaoke scenes and Refn has THE David Lynch shot. Only God Forgives has the nightmarish quality of being barely comprehensible. I was able to follow clearly what was happening. I could follow the string that ties it all together. However, when the scenes are juxtaposed next to each other, something feels off. I could see how Refn got from scene A to scene B, then from scene B to scene C. Sometimes though, if I tried to look back at how Refn got from A to C, it would start to get a little hazy. This is absolutely brilliant. Refn’s ability to instill this dreamlike quality feels Lynchian, but on a whole new level.
While managing to create a unique aesthetic that borrows from two incredibly different filmmakers, Refn adapts the Oedipus story for a modern audience. Oedipus feared his foretold father slaying and mother loving and actively ran from it. So does Gosling’s Julian, but he can’t seem to bring himself to run away fast enough. His relationship with his mother is messed up, to say the least. She lords over him like a mob boss for the film and denies him the approval he seems to desire. There’s something very sexual about their relationship. His mother seems very fixated on talking about his penis, and shows incredible jealousy when Julian brings a girl home. In the end, the way Julian slides his hand into her corpse is a throwback to the earlier scene of him sliding his hand into Mai, implying he finally fulfills his incestuous desires, even if in a necrophilic manner. I loved how Refn portrayed the oracle in this story, Mai. A Bangkok hooker, who helps Julian to see his fate, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam plays this role beautifully.
Gosling, while still pretty much a mute, is a completely different character in this film. His struggle with letting go of the poison that is his drug-dealing incestuous mother makes him much more vulnerable than his character in Drive. I loved the buildup of showing this character as a Thai boxing scout, and framing him up against the statuesque boxer; only to find out that he can’t fight, exemplifying the fact that this guy is living a lie. He’s not the man his mother wants him to be, but he pretends to be for much of this film. He is the only character that doesn’t actively seek revenge and shows compassion, but that can’t save him from the destructive tidal wave of vengeance that is set off in the beginning when his brother rapes and kills a 16 year old.
This is a story of the follies of revenge (as the title so aptly implies), and Refn experiments with how little he has to tell the audience in the dialogue for them to be able to follow. The low amount of dialogue makes the punches from what actually does get said hit all the harder. I couldn’t help but get sucked into what was visually being displayed, then someone would open their mouths and I couldn’t believe the filth that would come out, as if Chang’s hidden broken sword had cut a slit in their face for their innards to spew forth. This film revels in the filth. Drive is a bleach wipe to Only God Forgives’ used condom left in an alley.
It is amazing that the same filmmaker made Drive and Only God Forgives. They’re both incredible in different ways. I think Drive was more praised simply because Only God Forgives is quite a bit more ambitious. While I do enjoy the character study that is Drive, the seedy world that Refn has created in Only God Forgives just feels much deeper and rich.