The critical ire initially hurled at Nicolas Winding Refn’s polarizing 2013 art house thriller Only God Forgives would suggest the film was a reverberating failure, bound for future anonymity. However, slowly but surely, the film has already begun to grow a cult following. As the film is re-evaluated, and viewers take another look at the splendidly garish cinematography and dream-like storytelling, Only God Forgives is already considered by some to be a modern classic.
This isn’t to say that the initial backlash wasn’t somewhat understandable. The follow-up to Refn’s critical lauded Drive is very hard to describe and very bittersweet to view. In the film, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an exiled American running a Muay Thai boxing club (which serves as a front for his family’s drug smuggling operation) who discovers that his brother has been murdered by the ex-Police chief. Upon hearing the news, their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to town demanding Julian takes bloody revenge and his hunt leads him to Chang, “The Angel Of Vengeance“, an ex-cop who’s taken it upon himself to take matters into his own hands.
Sure, Gosling gives a wooden performance and the story moves at a glacial pace, but that’s exactly the point; the film isn’t meant to be taken as a representation of reality, but as one man’s actual nightmare. Looking at the film in this way is the only way to see it – once you do, it becomes an entirely different picture. In short, it finally makes sense.
The experience of making this surreal film has been chronicled in the upcoming documentary My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. The film – directed by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen – captures Refn’s fluctuating creative process as he preps his most challenging film to date while worrying if critics will tank it, and his career.
In a recent interview with Salon, the director explained how he feels about the film now that a little time has past.
I’m very proud of it. On a personal level, it felt great afterwards. The process was very challenging. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Drive became much more exposed than I was used to. I know, of course, what that means from a business and distribution point of view. Going into Only God Forgives, you’re basically saying, “Whatever I just made no longer exists.” I have to make an example of making something completely different. If that’s what worked, this time I have to consider doing something that won’t work. It’s a bit like when Lou Reed did Transformer, which is one of the great rock albums of all time. His follow-up was Metal Machine, which was just an album of guitar distortions.
It cleanses you from what you just did, and you are then able to move on to newer and better things. I knew what this film had, and of course the reactions at Cannes were pretty aggressive. I mean, it was extremely aggressive and reactions were very polarizing, mostly toward the aggressive side. I hadn’t been used to that kind of exposure. The same reaction repeated itself from my other films, even “Drive,” which a lot of people did not like when it came out. For me it was the same territory, but the exposure was a lot to take in. I remember at the end of it a millionaire had given us a yacht, and when everyone else had gone back, it was just me and Cliff Martinez sitting back. Cliff comes from the old days of rock and roll. I told him, “I feel like people are going to burn down the Carlton or something.” He said, “You always said you are The Sex Pistols of cinema.”
The director also spoke on the backlash from having someone as characteristic as Ryan Gosling essentially transform into a near-mute in the film:
It’s not the dialogue. I think what really shocked people was that the hero created in Drive was basically emasculated and impotent. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then at the end when he sticks his hand into his mother in Only God Forgives, because it’s the only way to have sex with her, I think it’s great. But it’s two different characters. Ryan was different, and the language was different because it was dialogue that very much suited the film. He’s a very smart and brave actor, so he really clicks into that and goes with it.
So, there you have it. See this movie before it becomes a future classic, and comment if you’ve seen it with your thoughts, whether you loved or hated it. You can read the full interview via the link above.