Two years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn came out of nowhere with a little indie movie called Drive. While ‘an action movie starring Ryan Gosling’ wasn’t necessarily something to get excited over in 2011, many had their expectations blown away by Refn’s sharp style and surprising commitment to ultra violence. Over the course of the following year, you were sure to see at least one “cool” guy sporting a scorpion jacket while blasting Kavinsky from their car. Drive gained the kind of fan worship that you’d expect to see from a big budget superhero movie.
And with Refn’s latest film, the more Lynch-ian Only God Forgives, there’s a sense that this reaction may have made the filmmaker somewhat uncomfortable. Rather than simply making Drive 2, Only God Forgives takes a U-turn that’s sure to alienate a significant chunk of Refn’s newly acquired fanbase. There are the obvious ways in which he does this: the pacing is slower, the narrative is slighter, the tone is weirder. But perhaps the most significant change is the way violence—a massive element to both films—is presented. Drive and Only God Forgives both feature grizzly, gross-out sequences that are sure to make the squeamish faint. In the latter, there’s something far more visceral about the bloodshed making it much harder to sit with.
That’s not to say that Drive isn’t a visceral film. It certainly is. But not in the same way that Refn’s latest is. Here, the violence is meant to disturb you. It’s meant to crawl into your chest and sit there in all its ugliness. Whether or not Drive was meant to have the same effect, it didn’t. The violence in that film is beloved—glorified even—by fans. The infamous scene involving Ryan Gosling, an elevator, and a head has been elevated to nearly iconic levels. Despite the fact that it’s disgusting, it somehow manages to be “cool.” By comparison, Only God Forgives has its own moment involving a crushed head, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone praise its awesomeness.
What’s so different this time around? Quite a bit. Drive is a classic damsel in distress story fronted by a lovable anti-hero. It’s got a clear narrative, characters, and the sides are easy to root for and against. Ryan Gosling is fighting on the side of good, so when he crushes a man’s skull, you know it’s okay to cheer for him. Only God Forgives is looser in all of those respects, creating a visual poem about revenge where no one is redeemable. In fact, the human beings are less characters and more vessels by which these disturbing acts are carried out. Refn wants you to feel the effect that this cycle of violence has, not necessarily enjoy it. The world he creates is dark and ugly, filled with a constant sense of dread and paranoia. Endlessly long, nearly silent sequences are punctuated by moments of vomit-inducing death. Around every dim corridor is a limb waiting to get severed. The world is suffocating and inescapable. There’s a sense that the bloodshed will never end; this is in an endless revenge cycle and everyone is collateral damage.
Refn does everything in his directorial power to push this feeling on the viewer, and admittedly, he missteps at times. Despite the film’s poetic nature, Refn still insists on pushing a narrative, and a relatively weak one at that. Sporadic scenes are dedicated to pushing the bare bones story forward. But story/character development aren’t the focus here, so throwing in either creates a distracting spotlight on the narrative. What you’re really meant to focus on is the horrific imagery; Refn even strips out anything that might be taken as iconic (you certainly won’t find a new Halloween costume idea here). The insistence on narrative is unfortunate, as it halts an effective visual experience from reaching excellence.
This may explain much of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the film. Ultimately, it’s an experience that you either feel in your guts or not. The story detracts from that visceral feeling, and that’s enough to drive off many viewers. But the imagery is undeniably striking, and if you’re willing to let yourself be overwhelmed by Refn’s visuals, you may find the darkness and dread creeping in. It’s not an entertaining film, and that’s what makes it particularly difficult. Most people only experience this level of hyper-violence in films like Django Unchained where bloodshed is played for fun. In reality, there’s nothing fun about killing, and Refn is trying his hardest to convince his own fans of it.