The boldness of her performance also adroitly counterbalances the stone-faced turns of Pansringarm and Gosling; after Drive, Refn seems to be consciously testing how far he can carry the idea of Gosling as a silent film actor. Yet he uses his star’s stoniness with trim effect, and his deadpan cutaways during an utterly bizarre dinner date scene between Crystal, Julian, and his regular prostitute suggest that the filmmaker knows how to tackle the black comedy of this material, even if the audience frequently doesn’t.
The critics who’ve called Only God Forgives self-indulgent aren’t wrong; it seems almost proudly so. Refn gives himself fully to the erotic nightmare aesthetic, in which every room is lit in blown-out neon, any wall could be literally caked in blood, and bursts of sudden, intense violence aren’t just expected, but encouraged. A film like this offers a challenge to the viewer, to deal with something this brutal, this violent, this inexplicable, and this darkly funny all at once.
Most viewers will reject that challenge, and it’s hard to blame them. From early on, Refn expects the audience to slow to his rhythms, and it’s not hard to imagine the vast majority of those who see it resisting, finding themselves (as my preview audience did) both squirming and tittering at its deliriously over-the-top ending. That scene doesn’t work, not really, but it sure as hell gets a response. Refn reportedly shoots his films chronologically, so that he can take advantage of new ideas that might occur to him along the way. Though I was unaware of that information going in, it might very well explain why, in spite of its considerable flaws, I can’t dismiss the picture: because it has an off-balance sense of making it all up as you go along. It doesn’t make for a movie-going experience that is evenly keeled, or altogether satisfying. But in this summer of dumbed-down narrative recycling and monotonous, indistinct mass destruction, there’s something utterly refreshing about a movie where you have absolutely no clue what bonkers place you’re going to arrive at next.
Only God Forgives is out today in limited release and on demand.