“Only God Forgives is like doing acid. Not the kind where you sit in a chair and see things — the kind of good acid where you become the chair.” Nicolas Windig Refn there, explaining how deep and clever his film is. Except, when you look at it, it’s a statement that’s just as meaningless and impenetrable as the film he’s describing. I mean, really, what does that even mean? It’s the kind of inane soundbite you’d expect to hear in the deleted scenes of Walk Hard, and it certainly doesn’t tell you anything about the film itself. It’s like doing acid? Why? Because bright colours? I might have been taken in by that when I was in my shut-up-mum-I-can-do-what-I-want phase, when I thought drugs were rebellious and cool rather than a way to kill time and make the screaming stop, but then I also thought Lostprophets were cool back then, and look how that ended up.
The point is, comparing your own movie to taking a tab of acid is crashingly stupid at best and calculated pandering at worst. “Look how cool this movie is! You need to take DRUGS to get it!” Screams Refn as he smears himself in his own excrement while choking himself with an ethernet cable, forgetting that such a ‘rebellious’ attitude means precisely fuck all in a world where you can use the internet to imbibe skin-peelingly extreme pornography before you’ve even had your breakfast, if you so choose. It’s such a hollow brand of hyperbole that really exposes the kind of wrong-headed mentality that resulted in Only God Forgives being such a failure. You may have already gathered (unless you are catastrophically stupid, but hey, you might be, I don’t know you) that I did not like Only God Forgives at all. I go into more detail about why in my review on Monday’s edition of The Highlight Reel, but I’d like to go into things in further depth here. Specifically, I’d like to go into just how phenomenally disappointing it was to see both Refn and the guy who is apparently his muse, Ryan Gosling, get sucked into their own hubris and produce a pile of vapid hogwash that proves just saying something is arty and deep doesn’t necessarily make it so. Only God Forgives is not art house cinema. It does nothing of any significance to earn that privilege. Only God Forgives is trash of the worst kind. It’s trash that doesn’t realise how bad it stinks.
See, where Drive actually was cool, Only God Forgives is made to look cool. There is a massive difference there. The thing about being cool is that it’s effortless. If you try and make something cool, you end up with a horrendously dated 90s infomercial. I can almost see the thought process that went through Refn’s mind when he was making Only God Forgives. Ryan Gosling was in Drive. He was quiet and blank for large parts of the film, which was atmospheric and cool. So, naturally, making every single damn character in your next movie enigmatic blank slates with the emotional range of a bag of flour makes it, like, ten times cooler, right? Of course not, unless you are one of the 0.000001% of the world’s population who finds shop mannequins sexy. See, what Refn missed was the rest of Drive. Yeah, watching Gosling cruise around looking broody and listening to European house music was cool, but it was nicely picked out by all his great character moments. Little things that nobody remembers, but you notice them when they’re missing. The sheepish smiles to his lovely new neighbour, offering a child a toothpick, his hesitation in shaking the hand of a mob boss. Ryan Gosling’s Driver was a character, he was not a cardboard cut out who’s sole purpose was to be bathed in neon light so he can have his chiselled features picked out by dark shadows. Had the Driver just been driving around listening to Kavinsky for an hour before mangling up some dude with a hammer, that film would not have been effective. Drive showed restraint. It held back. It played hard to get. And when it let you have it, you felt it. That strength of feeling invests you firmly in the film, the characters and, as a result, it earns the right to be taken seriously regarding any deeper, more allegorical significance it may have. Only God Forgives is a torrent of shit being flung directly into your eyes and ears at all times, like stepping out into the midday sun after a particularly heavy night on the gin. The constant overload of LOOK LOOK LOOK HOW COOL THIS IS, IT’S ALL NEON AND OOH NOW THEY’RE HAVING A SWORDFIGHT AND KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS IS SMOKING A CIGARETTE IN SLOW MOTION LOOK AT THESE THINGS might make for a bunch of cool shots you can edit together into a sweet trailer, but ultimately, when you stretch that over 90 minutes at the expense of having any story or character whatsoever, you haven’t created a deep movie. You’ve created an exceedingly pretentious music video. Marilyn Manson was doing this ‘long road to Hell’ crap 15 years ago, on a fraction of the budget, in under 5 minutes, while being Marilyn Manson. You don’t need 90 minutes of blank, sort-of-scowly sort-of-pouty expressions picked out in gaudy lights to get your tortured, irrelevant metaphor across.
There is no hidden meaning to Only God Forgives because it provides nothing substantial from which to draw meaning. It invokes no emotion apart from crushing boredom and frustration that you are wasting 90 minutes of your ever-shortening life watching someone try to tell you how cool they are. It’s the cinematic equivalent of rubbing fruit pastilles into your eyes. It’s probably striking and, as self-harm goes, it’s a pretty colourful and visually impressive way to do it, but you are still blinding yourself for no real reason, and no matter how much you scream and scream about how cool you are while you do it, no one will believe you. That’s one of the many things about being cool. You don’t get to decide that you’re cool, and trying? C’mon man, were you not around in the 90s? That’s the least cool thing of all. So, rather than doing acid, Only God Forgives is actually like sitting with all your friends as they do acid while you watch bug fights on Youtube and sort of pretend that you’re high along with them. Maybe Refn should amend his quote to that effect. It wouldn’t sit quite as comfortably as a soundbite, it takes far less courage and effort to do and it certainly doesn’t sound that cool.
Which actually makes the whole thing many times cooler when you think about it.