Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 90 min.
Verdict: The politics may be problematic but destroying the Gosling –persona is I guess worth it.
(Spoiler Note: Considering that there is precious little by way of plot, I might spill the entire thing below.)
That Mr. Gosling stars in Only God Forgives, instead of Luke Evans, is I guess a matter of cinematic providence. The representation of an identity, and its subversion via morality and religion, especially after how Drive was so completely misunderstood, was probably coming our way. Think about it. What do our movies, for the most part, offer us these days? The ironic male-child, of the Judd Apatow films, of the Iron Man films, of even something like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, who are quite happy in sharing with us their world of fantasy and zero responsibility. You see, Tony Stark is a genius and thus he doesn’t need to remember his SSN. Coolness is in, and domesticity is for losers. It is mostly about a bunch of overgrown Calvins. And when it is not, there’s that male who’s torn between his desire for domesticity and his need to be part of Calvin’s club, an emotional condition so clearly articulated via the husband’s decision in Ishqiya. An emotional condition that of course has its origins in our boyish fantasies, in that part of our minds which just wouldn’t want to be venture anywhere near adulthood and let its practicalities steamroll over constructions we have built since we were all-absorbing wide-eyed kids.
Someone as Glyn McLyntock (Bend of the River), who’s sure of his desires, is all but dead. Even Dan Evans, in Mr. Mangold’s great 3:10 to Yuma, desires validation. I mean, there is so much doubt here I want to make a totally irrelevant observation and end this sentence. And just say that the patriarch is dead. Or at least he takes up side parts because he isn’t desirable. The boys have sort of replaced the men. A James Stewart, a Cary Grant, or a Paul Newman, has given way to Robert Downey Jr. Somebody thought it was wise to have Mr. Aston Kutcher play Steve Jobs and chart those years in the man’s life, probably because The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg happened. And you throw Mr. Gosling’s celebrated persona – The Driver – into the mix, who wears cool satin jackets, doesn’t talk, and drives, and you have something that masquerades as an ideal to strive for. An ideal that tries to look the part, but is not the part, especially because of the inherent self-consciousness and blatant navel-gazing that is probably the sole purpose of this entire exercise. Boys pretending to be men, desperately so, wanting both the girl and the gun, but without being an essential part of the predicament and instead staying outside and retaining the “coolness” of the impassionate observer. Oh yeah, there is a paradox here, and while Mr. Refn and Mr. Gosling very much tried to etch that paradox in Drive, the attempt was completely lost on us.
This is a paradox that doesn’t arise out of a vacuum of ideology or belief, and on the contrary it probably is the direct result of an excessive need to mythologize a belief system, a need that arises out of our need for father figures. From Fight Club –
“If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?
What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and a God.”
What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and a God.”
Now, there are, I guess, two tendencies here while we externalize this belief system – (a) to make it our alter ego, a familiarity we can always hang our coats and hats on, a tendency that is exhibited through figures like Hobbes, like the T-800 Terminator in Judgment Day, or like Jack Slater in Last Action Hero (a post-modern embrace of this tendency if there ever was one), or through the over-prevalence of superheroes in and around us. Slowly, but surely, these alter egos became so familiar they went about being from father figures to buddies, like in the case of Tyler Durden, or even the folks in Funny People.
In Mr. Refn’s Only God Forgives, the protagonist, who as I have mentioned earlier thankfully happens to be played by Mr. Gosling, moves through corridors of fear. His moral and even ethical framework is not borne out of a conviction in any particular belief system, but out of fear of the unknown about him. In that way, the film and its protagonist represent the second tendency, (b), one that is borne out of admittance of one’s innate weakness to adhere to the belief system, thus causing the weakness to be fear, and the fear to be manifested via a figure, who could well not be the benevolent friend, but a punishing Old Testament-esque God.
The plot is merely a framework to establish psychological and moral dynamics, and I feel a little lethargic recount it here (Wiki plot entry). Now, there are two crucial dynamics that the film pursues – (a) the complete deconstruction of Mr. Gosling’s urban-bred “Samurai” persona including the complete destruction of the ego to accept one’s stature as a one of the many followers of a monotheistic god, which I am pretty enthusiastic about, and (b) the suspecting and mostly stereotypical view of a family and, maybe even religion, dominated by a goddess, a religion I suspect is being viewed as something abnormal with corruptible tendencies, and I am quite uncomfortable about it.
First, the deconstruction. The remainder of the Fight Club quote from above:
“What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates you. This is not the worst thing that could happen.
Getting God’s attention is better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate is better than His indifference.
If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
Which is to say, Julian doesn’t “complete anybody”, or fulfill a destiny. Mr. Refn achieves his deconstruction of identity by establishing Julian against the idol of an accomplished fighter, sort of reflecting our estimation of him, and then destroys this identity by having him match up against what the plot until then considers his principal adversary – a deeply moralistic cop by the name of Chang (Mr. Pansringarm) who is his own law – who not merely beats him but reduces him to a pathetic empty figure. It then goes on to reveal who it considers the same as the symbolic of the idol fighter, via this juxtaposition.
By the end of the shot, Julian has realized he is no Neil McCauley Hanna, or even the Joker to the Batman. All such romantic tendencies have been virtually scoffed at, by a figure who for Julian is pretty much the same as T-800 is for young John Connor (and us). There is no mutual respect, so to speak, and which causes Julian to finally destroy his ego and seek forgiveness and punishment for abandoning his previous belief system, i.e. the patriarch, i.e. his father whom he murdered.
It is all fine and dandy until here, a step taken towards eventual domesticity I respect so very much. And yet it is an effect that is distinctly undermined by the film’s second dynamic, which happens to be the cause, and which believes ethics and morality and forgiveness to still remain an affair strictly limited to the territory of the males. Women are innocent victims, or observers, who are asked to close their eyes while the God dishes out punishment. And if they become active participants, they are corruptible influences. Which is to say, Mr. Refn seems to have interpreted the Oedipal in a kind of wrong way.
In keeping with my tendency, I use Mr. Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb to fill in a whole lot of emotional and psychological gaps within the mostly symbolic framework of Only God Forgives, an exercise which I would say doesn’t affect my appreciation of either of the films, apart from suggesting that both might be derived of the same cloth; it is just that dresses stitched are a little different in size and style. So yes, the mother is glamorous and hence (?) influential. Does Only God Forgives imply here then that had the mother been an unremarkable deglamorized non-entity performing the function the society has asked her to, would the son be influenced correctly and in keeping with a patriarchal system? I don’t know, but as it suggests the only thing that seems to stand in his way of embracing the belief system is the glamorous mother, and it doesn’t help she represents an unambiguous bitch, a symbol which renders the entire dynamic trivial and uninteresting.
The facts though are this: the God punishes the evil and thus frees the pitiable Julian from her influence, thereby paving his way to seek forgiveness and be a devotee. Which he does, and which Mr. Refn charts with zero irony. He is not afraid to put it out there. It is a rare and courageous thing, for both the filmmaker and his protagonist, and thereby the actor, to not find validity for themselves but to submit whole-heartedly to the other within the frame, and despite his problematic politics, I want to believe he has his heart in the right place.