In Derek Cianfrance’s tryptic male weepie The Place Beyond the Pines, a dramatic collage of lives linked by blood and circumstance, two key scenes establish the pines as a symbolic location where deepest and darkest fears reside, off the beaten track, in an emotional hotspot rarely visited or contemplated. A heated confrontation between a man and a relative of a person he killed add to its haunted intimacy a sense this place is also a potential tipping point, where anger and retribution can spill over into actions unable to be taken back or re-appropriated.
The word “beyond” is one of the film’s deceptively complex touches, and something for which we are never given a simple answer, or even an answer at all. Contemplating Pines’ overarching themes about grim implications of fatherhood and legacy — a kind of Chaos theory cause and effect that spans lifetimes, perhaps generations — I think of that place as a terrible headspace way past the realms of acceptable moral behaviour, where a person’s decisions impact other lives with potentially dire ramifications: the sins of a father, as Cianfrance shows us, can lead to the grotesquery of a child in ways unwanted and unanticipated.
A place — back to that idea of a tipping point — where fears rescind into psychological recesses or progress to terror and tragedy, where any stab at salvation lies a long shot away from anything we know or understand; a place, as Jack Nicholson memorably put it in A Few Good Men, “you don’t talk about at parties.” A place where, to lacquer those words in religious parlance, only God forgives.
Enter director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bangkok-set revenge drama (head turner at Cannes and winner of Sydney Film Festival’s top gong) which delights in running extreme violence through a fetishistic art film filter, tangoing through neon-lit bars and scummy streets with an unwavering sense of grace and purpose. Like Pines, Only God Forgives’ thematic essence latches onto concepts pertaining to family and repercussions, but here the “beyond” goes, well, beyond, swinging the compass a hellish distance from reasonable moral boundaries and daring audiences to look past the blood and sweat stains.
Refn quickly establishes how badly the line has been crossed: an early scene depicts a man standing next to a butchered corpse in a blood-soaked room; we learn he raped and murdered a 16-year-old sex worker. Sword-wielding Thai detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) encourages the girl’s father to avenge her, and his retribution sparks outrage from the rapist’s acid-tongued mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who orders a hit after her drug dealing son Julian (Ryan Gosling) refuses to do it himself. Chang, more daemon than human, is played with imperturbable perfection by Pansringarm, who walks around like an Angel of Death delivering punishments to sinners and scumbags caught in the mire.
It’s jet-black hard-boiled revenge, story-wise not dissimilar to junky genre fare: They Call Her One Eye (1974), Harry Brown (2009), Machete (2010) etcetera, but the key difference is tonal. Only God Forgives is pimped out with sumptuous candle-lit glamour that relishes in the disparity between form and content. The film may look like a grungy In the Mood for Love (2000) or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), even if it owes more to Kill Bill (2003) and Death Wish (1974).
By embellishing low art in high art surrounds, Refn is challenging ideas of context and consumption, a sick twist on Warhol’s placement of a soup can in an art gallery. He is also asking us to accept the film as a love letter to what, on surface level, feels like a constitution of morally reprehensible visions, though it is actually conservative in its distribution of comeuppance (few characters escape a brutal endgame or harsh judgement from Lady Luck). When the meat cleaver swings, it comes down hard, not with the pomp of Luhrmann or the pulp of Tarantino but with utter grace and restraint, and it is this sense of artistry that has boiled the blood of critics who ordinarily don’t mind empty beauty, so long as it is not offensive and does not contravene the codified order of what we can expect to see and where we can expect to see it.
Back we come to “beyond,” a key word to describe this rich and evocative work: beyond the boundaries of taste, beyond reason, beyond responsibility, beyond that fear pit in Cianfrance’s metaphoric mind field, where the obvious answer to the question of what one is doing there boils down to iterations of how one may try to find a way to leave.
Only God Forgives ultimately, and somewhat awkwardly, segues into a blood-splattered Oedipal complex thought bubble; Kristin Scott Thomas wasn’t just cast to spit out the words “cum dumpster,” which she does with intoxicating nonchalance. This is complicated by the double-think depth, or pseudo depth, of a film with a lot on its mind in one sense and very little in another.
Refn uses sophisticated vacuity as a turn-on, and once that kind of impulse is aroused in the context of a work as cold-hearted as this, it is virtually impossible for a filmmaker to approach with perspective — to see the forest for the trees (or the pines). It is no surprise the resulting sweat and tears are both deeply indulgent and unsettlingly expendable, and no surprise Refn has, in the face of a battering from negative reviews, made noises suggesting his work constitutes great art. To take away that belief in self would bring everything else — even, and especially, the creative crimes he is accused of committing — down with it.
Only God Forgives’ Australian theatrical release date: July 18, 2013.
This film was screened at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival.