© 2013 by James Clark
Our title phrase comes to the heart of this, generally dismissed as heartless, film from 2013. It does so in two ways, which can go a considerable distance toward disarming the claim that it is not only sickening but stupid. The first way, far more easily comprehended, has to do with the speaker, Billy, an American drug dealer in Bangkok, handing over a pittance to a successful Thai kick boxer at the gym he and his brother operate as a front for the exchange of real money. (As with the small-time athletics between the Clippers and the Raptors at the outset of Refn’s previous film, Drive , this smallness implies a form of bigness. In presenting the money, Billy remarks, “My brother was right. You’re a great fighter…” Apparently, then, it is that second American expatriate, Julian, who pays much more attention to the front—thereby introducing his more generous range than that of Billy. It is well to touch upon this matter here, because discovering where the bigness is to be found in Only God Forgives is a considerably more daunting task than it was regarding Drive.) Billy’s crack about not getting reckless with a bit of small change thinly conceals his contempt for someone he regards as a nonentity in contradistinction to his own high-impact superiority as confirmed by his far larger cash flow. Rapidly moving on to demonstrate the extent of his disdain for those without deep pockets, Billy visits a brothel and puts on display the dimensions of an appetite that could graze to the heart’s content. He starts by declaring, “I want to fuck a fourteen-year-old.” On being given no satisfaction along those lines by the impresario, he offers him 15,000 for his daughter (“Bring her in…”); and again his progress is undone. Thereby, he smashes into the glass, floor-to-ceiling confection display case where a number of women recline (beating up the owner en route) and he proceeds to wreak havoc, savagely kicking and punching the girls (in a dismal parody of the winner/loser actions in the gym, seen at the outset) and topping off his Alpha chagrin by raping one of them and killing her with a handgun, leaving the tasty nook awash in gore.
As it happens, young Billy is not the only irresistible force in town. The middle-aged leader of a uniformed corps of security servicemen (a SWAT team without the heavy hardware) grimly surveys the carnage and soon after calmly delivers a sermon to the father of the dead girl. “How could you do it?” he remonstrates, his face set in a mixture of incredulity and déjà vu. “You could have protected her,” he adds, introducing traces of chivalry. The dad on the spot mutters something about “making ends meet;” and, as if finding in that metaphor more provocation, the cop goes on to remind him that now the point is “about your three daughters still alive.” Drawing a sword from the nape of his collar he chops off one of the careless man’s hands; and while the latter howls in pain we have to get past that disconcerting antiquity and recall that, before giving him a permanent disability, the chieftain also gave him some marching orders—“Now’s your chance to do something.” Though we are diverted here by a scene where Billy’s brother shows us how difficult it is for some players to get from point A to point B, we soon come to a disclosure of where the cue to “do something” (as augmented by, “Do what you want”) leads—namely, to Billy as mutilated and dead as the girl he savaged.
Much of Only God Forgives presents the spectacle of appetites raging to extremes. As he leaves the gym that night, intent on fresh sensation, Billy half-whispers, “Time to meet the Devil.” Such a recourse to first principals coheres with Refn’s strong suit in confronting perversity, his unwaveringly doing justice to that phenomenon of world history’s death grip upon self-sparing distemper, so unforgettably installed in film history by Robert Bresson. Whereas an auteur with a comic flair, like Leos Carax, reminds us (for the most part) with Gallic charm that the devastation of contemporary life is not without somehow significant windfalls, Refn cannot be a party to leaving matters at a level of Cocteau-Surrealist whimsy. Instead he hurls himself and his work into an assessment of the immanence of addiction to self-aggrandizement and its offshoot of resentment when the gravy train hits a snag.
Thus we have, ensuant upon the bedevilment of Billy, Billy’s employer, his mother (as effectively conversant with suppliers of self-embellishing cocaine and heroin), promptly arriving in Bangkok to “take care of the yellow Nigger who killed my son.” She asks Julian, “Did you get the guy who did it? How did you kill him?” And he quietly tells her, “I let him go.” Predictably incredulous and seething about such an outcome, she trots out some more nasty phrases and Julian interrupts with, “It’s a little more complicated than that, Mother” (another strong candidate for the title of this account, particularly in view of the simplism of most of the reviews). Being an arbiter of “spending it all in one place” (which eases us into the second wing of our title), she greets his detailing—“Billy raped and killed a sixteen-year-old”—with a line so often heard (even if not in so many words) in TV interviews of relatives of terrorists and other psychopaths: “I’m sure he had his reasons.” In the course of this failing to see eye-to-eye, we directly enter upon a figure not merely at odds with the byzantine mainstream, but most endangered in those circumstances. Though this gulf is abundantly clear in its dramatic instancing, few seem to care to reflect upon it, within the general panic this movie induces not to be seen as a pervert. As such it powerfully demonstrates the intractability of the appetite for advantageous postures.
As in Drive, the Ryan Gosling persona, Julian, offers us a visceral awakening bemusingly akin to the Monica Vitti function for Antonioni, out of which, in Eclisse, we are dealt the hot ticket, “I’m not with my people.” Here, though—and we have Antonioni to thank for helping to lend precision to this daring and challenging film—we engage the physical (not simply emotional) deadliness of historical interaction. As with the Coens’ Blood Simple, the uncanny isolation and physical peril of the protagonist is incisively conveyed from the outset by compelling visual and aural features. First there is his home, carved and then made to glow from out of a squalid industrial hulk that serves as a spectatorial sweat shop for those witlessly trying to make ends meet. The angularity of the template has been accentuated in the form of a maze of narrow corridors, painted and then lighted in blood red (as was the brothel murder scene). A larger space, the living room, has been wallpapered with an arabesque, jungle foliage motif, upon the fronds of which jagged tooth-like imagery is allowed to spray forth. Though we’re still at an early stage of our consideration of this stratospheric contention with love, we should notice, for future development, that that confining and menacing locale brings about Blood Simple’s Abby (and Julian) and L’Argent’s Yvon, along with the oppressiveness of their appointment with grace. We first see Julian pacing and pausing amidst this precinct, in its elaboration upon the signature visual design of the credits, a narrow ribbon of scarlet slowly pouring across a black ground. A synthesized ambient musical thrust lends aural weight to this moment of concentration spilling out to an evening with colleagues of various descriptions, a distracting evening, though his face does not lose its anticipatory calm amidst a vicious brawl between diminutive combatants in the ring, strident bettors, a quick drug sale and a beautiful young woman making rounds with acquaintances. Before leaving his apartment, Julian slowly extends his arms and hands, and then he clenches his fists, coinciding with a statue at the site. While Billy has his little joke with the fighter, we see Julian leaning against a latticework panel bathed in golden light, no more engaged by this than by the other transactions. Then, with an ill-at-ease Billy wandering the dark streets after his rash reasoning, Julian is with the girl we saw at the gym. She’s standing behind a curtain of silver beads, dressed in sequins, in a disposition recalling the scene in the brothel, before the murder. But here there is an orderly organ peal; there is golden light across screen-panelled walls within which he slowly spreads his fingers toward her; and then he reclines impassively (and yet with slightly troubled eyes) upon a red plush banquette (the ceiling teeming with jelly-fish-like scarlet lamps) with a gold lightning-like-touch running straight behind his head, seemingly cutting right through it. After that, he clenches his fists, shown in close-up for their intrusion of stasis into a time of vaguely hallowed sanctuary.
While the curbing of Billy explodes into its aftermath, there are two intervening scenes whereby Julian places himself amidst a minefield looking to be unbeatable. The first, right after his rabid mother quietens down to administer more strategically, facetiously cutting insult—“I know it’s hard for you emotionally. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of the yellow Nigger who killed my first born…It’s too much for you…”—finds him at that Beauty’s club where, after silently looking into her beautiful face, he gently reaches with a now-open hand and touches her as that river of sound, produced by a keyboard, wells up. Two drunk, middle-aged businessmen from along the banquette from them burst out laughing, babbling not only without serenity but also (seemingly) without respect. Julian rushes over to them, punches the glass of the one in the course of drinking, immediately shredding his mouth and face, kicks both of them along the floor and tears out what’s left of the interrupted drinker’s teeth (in a moment tracing to Drive, when the Driver, losing his temper [as stung by emotional and physical threats], does some dentistry with a hammer, on someone he regarded as making a fool of him). The second entails a more ritualistic structure to the pace of his (and her) mood. Beginning, as always, with that part-longing, part-standoffish disposition, he rolls up his sleeves and she fastens with thin cords his arms to the arms of a chair. While he regards her intently, she slowly lifts the front of her dress. As she masturbates, a musical motif with organ and strings accents not her and his moods as properties of persons but as embarkation upon and within uncharted seas. With the surround of blackness, touched by red-filtered light, framing their eerily tempered interplay, they bring to mind the chaste, tentative passions onstream in the dark palace of Cocteau’s Belle et Bête. (Also in play, as signalled by characteristically shattering musical motifs, there is the crime figure’s girlfriend of sorts, solitarily emoting in Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels.) The teeth on his wallpaper flash for a second. He raises his hand, slowly freeing the fingers from their tension—then a sword cuts off his arm! The Nemesis emerges, approaching with his sword. Then there is the factual room, his reverie, about a fateful hostility he cannot control, ending for now. But his commerce with such an anticipatory mirror has linked his saga to a venerable bid for love, an amazing inclusion within a drama seemingly bereft of any cogent affection.
As if to confirm the ready despoliation of his and her stances (and perhaps forge an alliance that could withstand the tightening noose), Julian finds her next day and tells her (the first words we behold her hearing from him), “I’d like you to meet my mother. You don’t have to pretend we’re a couple…Can you do it?” He goes on to sustain the scriptedness of their association, by bringing forward a gift-wrapped, tony little black dress. (“Will you wear this?”) The dinner party, at the restaurant of her luxury hotel—replete with melon-like ceiling touches which do not, as the jelly-fish items do, resonate—plumbs new levels of domestic catastrophe. The Narc Queen, whom we must here (by way of anticipating the film’s alert as to the drag of family ties) describe as incestuously welded to her offspring, does not fail to find the obscene vocabulary to meet a threat to her erotic appetite for dominance. “What kind of work do you do, Mai?”/ “I’m an entertainer.”/ “How many cocks have you entertained in that cum dumpster of yours?” Though she’s firing blanks when thinking to alarm Mai about Julian’s drug trade (“…pays the price of fucking you…”), she moves along to rough up the reluctant avenger in the thought-provoking terms of his cock’s being not nearly as large as Billy’s. Then she relishes the idea that Julian resents never having been able to “compete” with his super-brother. Ordering expensive dishes for the failure and herself, she sends a salad Mai’s way. Both guests manage to stay calm; but on the way home Mai asks angrily, “Why do you let her talk to you like that?” Julian claims it’s a matter of her being his mother—not a “reason” that flies in this context so far beyond the Ten Commandments. Realizing that his response is not a seriously competitive account of his reaching out to a figure so unremittingly splenetic, his sense of hopelessness turns ugly—and he goes on to register a cheap triumph, much as with the two drunks. The evening ends with her being made to strip and hand over his dress. He screams, “Take it off!” But as we’ll later come to discern (with difficulty), that’s not the end of that agency of cool, of subtle, elusive quality as against crude (though widely subscribed to) quantity.
Two very brief episodes take us into the full nightmare of quantitative advantage. And they do this by setting in relief that, for all its implacable negativity, this narrative abounds with positive actions. The first of these moments is an echo from a beloved mentor, Robert Bresson. Julian has confronted the dad who “had his reasons” for cutting Billy down to size, and then he has gone on to do the unthinkable. But there must have been some vacillation before the pardon, because soon we get a glimpse of Julian at his polar-design bathroom, just around the corner from all those flashing teeth on the walls, his hands in a wash basin cleaning blood from them down the drain. He hasn’t killed anyone on that occasion; but that bloody sink shoots us back to Bresson’s Yvon, in L’Argent, cleaning his hands of blood after butchering the staff of L’Hotel Moderne. Such a memory jolt speaks not to mere homage for an auteur who wasn’t afraid to be disturbing. It speaks to the reflective architecture of Only God Forgives, where a put-upon figure pointedly resists (with much difficulty) succumbing to bestiality. (Such moments are not instalments of the kind of geekdom that does well on Jeopardy; they plunge to the problematic, developmental heart of a reflective task dawning upon many film artists and many who attend to art for the sake of that endeavor.) The second instance of note at this juncture is the vigilante chieftain tucking his daughter into bed with a little quiz about how to behave. The bright little button has it all committed to memory: The good life is to be found, “By talking nicely to one another.” (While one could note affinities here with Thumper, in Disney’s Bambi, once again there is the equivocally mature, assuring poise with which the Dad elevates a disconcerting superficiality.) That would seem to put the lawman at a pole opposite to that of Julian’s Mom. But whereas she wallows in beefcake stage shows, he—after warming to his assignment (from whom?) to put an end to crime—takes the stage of a Karaoke bar and sings (in a rather hammy way) about his longing for a world of goodness, and disappointments along the road. His audience consists of the platoon of loyal colleagues costumed as he is (in sober black shirts and pants), who listen intently to the psalms their leader dishes out (with the same heartfelt body language and vocal timbre he lavishes on his pre-school daughter). And there we have a startling vision of Demy’s Lola (who would rally her little boy with, “Said your prayers?”) and her net-stocking cronies. (Hold that thought.) Whereas the self-serving bathos of the badly (alright, hopelessly) tarnished avenging angel is easy to spot, with the far more complex lawman we have to look closely at all the clues in order to fathom what he means to this mix. A signature moment for him comes in his keeping up his edge by stalking-tiger slowly treading along some parkland with a huge skyscraper in the distance, all the while twirling and positioning a sword. He looks, for all the world, like some figment of pre-historic time-warp, ready to satisfy an appetite toward wreaking vengeance upon those defilers of a supposed once-sacred (and simplistic—though not entirely so) order. Like opposing warlords, the Dad and the Mom are locked into an extreme pursuit of self-gratifying advantage. Whereas the crime-boss uses her sword-like tongue to satisfy hatred of the problematically creative, viscerally sophisticated world at large, the scourge, heavily facilitated by his quasi-policing function and the loathsomeness of the predators (prominently including two cocky, likewise-blonde Australians), operates on a terrain where he (almost) gets a pass for his fulsome discharge of cruelty in thwarting those operatives. After an ambush almost leading to his death, he and his (far from merry but impressively contented) men catch up one of the Australians at a restaurant, where the singer onstage lacks the passion of the cop’s routine, and the generally poised warrior slips somewhat and butchers his prey, along lines of ordering him to divulge the identity and whereabouts of the force behind the wave of carnage, the body count including Billy’s killer. We are especially struck by one line of response to the foul-mouthed defiance of the foreign devil. Wielding (consecutively) two sets of seafood stilettos, he plunges them into the still regally situated adversary, the first set nailing down his hands on the arms of the chair, the second set fastening his legs to the seat. This direct assault elicits quiet gratification from the lawman, due to the almost infantile crying being done by the enemy. (Compare that moment with Abby knifing Visser’s hand to the window sill in Blood Simple.) The exponent of (unforgettable, even if not lucid) tough justice goes on to rather pedantically berate the barbarian for lack of true vision. “You can’t see what’s good for you… It’s better you have no eyes…” And he cuts out his eyes, with the slightest installation of smugness into his austere bearing.
As so often of late, in these investigations, what begins as seeming to be an instance of private ambition and aberration comes down to being a slice of a remarkably comprehensive war. And with Refn we have perhaps that filmmaker most acutely galvanized by the war-footing of every participant in world history. I find it not merely surprising but especially enlivening that this impresario of dismaying mayhem would put his money on the pony inadvertently named by an unmitigated lout like Billy, namely, “All in One Place,” with its implication that a sharply focused synthesis is the way to go. What seems to be afoot in the battle of the warlords is confirmation that that other lout, Billy’s Mom and Squeeze, has it right in sneeringly telling Julian, “It’s too much for you…” However, this is not about Julian and his stature but instead about the “places” Julian painfully occupies. We are not being served up figures to like or dislike. This is not Facebook. This is a magnet drawing us into a field of energies (solitary and social) to be shaped to harmonic and creative outcomes.
The only one fully engaged by that “spending it in more than one place” is Julian. His mother, when finally facing the super-cop’s cold steel, claims—shooting as always for cheap melodrama (“…and, as a mother, it pains me to say this…”)—that Julian had killed his father due to his having always been psychopathically deranged, a heavy burden for her and supposedly the motive for sending him to Bangkok. But clearly, to the cop and to us, Billy was the killer, coming out of a more than irritating relationship with the victim’s wife. And prior to that scene we have heard from her the real story, as she asks Julian to shield her from the pious juggernaut going after the one who put out the hit on him—“After your father was killed. I said I’d never ask you again” [to clean up her mess, i.e., transport the hell-boy to the other side of the globe, far from American jurisprudence]. In that same quiet moment, after Julian has been pulverized by the martial arts master, she declares, “You’re right. I don’t understand you. And I never will.” Far from a moment of being touched by a serious crisis of interpersonal enlightenment, this fact of impasse is, for her, grist to be processed as resentment. With the one who goes on to plunge a blade into her jugular, leaving her noisily dribbling blood over the expensive hotel suite like a stuck pig, she viciously misrepresents Julian, rounding out that feature of the latter’s motions, over a wide range, as proffering the truth that one’s family tends to be a more or less treacherous impediment to getting real, and the most painful battleground of the sweep between crude oblivion and regal understanding. Julian catches up with his mother’s corpse later that day, whips out a sword of his own (having been once again beaten to the punch [the crazy domestic imbroglio of Divorce Italian Style putting in a cameo appearance]) and disembowels her. He then goes on to place his hand at her vagina. We had seen him, at his girlfriend’s entertainment centre, very gently placing his hand upon the same area of her living body. Very distinct from the creepiness of a Freudian whacko, he would be assimilating the range of his “spending.” The residue of prototypical Yvon’s travesty of going to war (introduced by not only the blood in the sink, but a dog [here a mutt, by contrast with L’Argent and Blood Simple’s fine German Sheppard] in the more recent corridors-abounding picture, as Julian interrogates Billy’s murderer; and also a female companion chaffing at imprisonment by the wiles of sickening cowards) clings to Julian inasmuch as he does, from out of his humiliation by the master (whom he unsoundly challenges to a fight, hoping to kick him around as he did with the drunk businessmen, a soft tip of the iceberg of implacably primal fustiness), participate in a plot to murder the latter’s child. True to the equivocation at the heart of his presence, he does shoot the sentry posted at the master’s house, and allows his accomplice to kill the nanny; but he shoots the other gunman to protect the girl (having a moment of tense confusion about whether, as the other hit-man insists, his mother would have ordered such a killing).
The denouement begins with Julian at that banquette, the shaft of continuous golden light at head-level now become a train of golden points of light, just missing contiguity. The lawman—now intruding in fact (not as the premonition at Julian’s apartment—sits across from him and they silently regard each other, the smashing on Julian’s face from their previous encounter registering his having become permanently compromised as a warrior and a lover. Julian’s face, horribly swollen and bruised, is a mask we have been allowed to look into. There is none of that previous sharp arrogance in the lawman’s demeanor. There is a cut to Julian’s spreading out his arms and hands for the sake of a much wider care, before having them lopped off by the Nemesis (as anticipated in the mirror mirroring Julian’s sense of deadly imbroglio). Strangely, perhaps, this horror comes as a challenging turn on the road, not a shattering obliteration. (The setting is parkland, ironically redolent of duelling scenes in melodramas light-years away from this.) Julian—now doubly disfigured for his errancy—becomes the unspoken tribute of the free-floating Puritan’s last song of this production. After losing it somewhat with the defiantly perverse Aussie, his subsequent Karaoke gig is a series of soundless mouthing and little squeaks awash in industrial white noise turmoil. But here, to close matters for now, he belts out (tightly, of course, but with a touch of sunshine [like those rare moments when Lola catches some rays]) an anthem of thanks for a warrior whose erratic dynamics he can appreciate, on some level at least. He has, along with Julian, been brushed by some degree of disinterestedness, that infrastructure of the “forgiveness” in the title. Not only putting a little more dazzle to the occasion but also sustaining an approach to Refn as a playfully fertile writer as well as thrilling cinematographer, there is Julian’s girl—so often disappointed by him, but always there the next day (perhaps pointedly absent from the execution)—replying to the indescribably unacceptable mother-in-law who mispronounced her name as “My.” “It’s ‘May.’”