News Column

Refn takes intellectual approach to his fetishizing of violence in 'Only God Forgives'

July 20, 2013


July 20--Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn has earned a reputation as a unique and bold filmmaker unafraid to tackle stark violence in his films. His last two movies, the somewhat autobiographical "Bronson" and the surprise 2011 indie throwback "Drive," fetishized violent behavior.

In his latest, "Only God Forgives," the mild-mannered and thoughtful filmmaker decided to take conflict to its extreme. He wanted to make a movie about a man fighting God.

Refn's theme was born from a personal struggle. His wife was enduring a difficult pregnancy, and not knowing the outcome and having no control over the situation left the director frightened. But he had no outlet for his anger.

He wanted to direct those fears and frustrations into his art, but the idea of fighting God felt too abstract, so he decided to bring the story down to a more accessible level.

"I thought it was interesting to do a film that was remotely within a crime universe where the antagonist was not a man but a mother," Refn says.

"Only God Forgives" stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, who runs a Muay Thai boxing gym that serves as a cover for a drug operation. When his brother, Billy, is murdered after killing a teenage prostitute, Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives to challenge her son and force him onto a course of bloody retribution.

The film takes place in a seedy Bangkok underworld awash in blood. While the surrealist Western story is ostensibly about a lone man seeking revenge, the story hinges on the twisted relationship between mother and son. Thomas plays a wicked and emasculating mother, described by Refn as a Donatella Versace and Lady Macbeth hybrid.

The man who killed Billy is a former police boss named Chang, referred to in the film as the "Angel of Death." Crystal demands a reluctant Julian to kill Chang, but when Chang learns of the murder plot, the story careers into a mess of bloody betrayal and an explosion of familial tensions.

The story borrows from Greek tragedy (Oedipus would blush at the climactic scene between mother and son), and Refn delivers the almost cartoonish violence in a tale that works more on an emotional level than an intellectual one.

Refn aims for abstraction in the story of a man fighting his mother, his own internal demons and the ruthless, God-like Chang. Like David Lynch, the filmmaker has no interest in delivering an explicit narrative. And the violence in the film that colors the story serves as a corollary for Refn's approach to his craft.

"I consider art as an act of violence," says Refn, who recently visited Austin to discuss his film. "I tend to like cinema that is abstract in a sense ... it is all about emotions being fired at an audience, like an installation almost. ... And violence in cinema is very much about fantasy and using that is a great way to penetrate the mind. If you penetrate the mind, it can either stay there or it can go past or it can go into your heart. When it goes into your heart, then it stays with you for the rest of your life. That's how art works."

Limited dialogue and an impactful score from composer Cliff Martinez assist in achieving narrative ambiguity and subtext. Martinez, who at one point in the film has a nine-minute musical cue, heightens tensions with noirish high-pitched strings and bellowing woodwinds that alternate with innocent sounds of xylophone, all interspersed with Chang performing bizarre karaoke.

The music seems to lend intention to some scenes while serving as ironic misdirection in others. Martinez, who has worked with directors such as Steven Soderbergh and served as the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers during the nascent stages of that band, collaborated with Refn on "Drive" and says he relishes the ambiguity and space Refn's filmmaking affords him.

"He has the confidence to leave things open and sparse and allow the music to kind of carry and interpret things, and not many filmmakers do that," Martinez says. "They edit things very densely and the music is given the role of interstitial transitions."

As important as music is to "Only God Forgives," Refn gives as much credence to silence as sound. The silence makes it incumbent upon the audience to fill in the spaces, which Refn believes makes them more alert and attuned to the film. It is an intentional slowing down that reinforces the impact of his art.

For a filmmaker seemingly obsessed with violence, Refn takes an intellectual approach to discussing his craft.

"We live in a society where it's all about speed of information, speed of your everyday life, speed of getting things accomplished," Refn says. "When you speed too much it takes away the will to penetrate. It becomes consumerism. If you reverse that, and suddenly it becomes all about slow, then it actually becomes a lot faster because people then have to actually step further in because speed can numb you."

The result is an immersing film that will hypnotize some and disgust others.


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