The James Clayton Column: Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal brilliance

As the divisive Only God Forgives opens in the UK, James salutes the work of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn...

Ryan Gosling doesn’t need an excuse for violence. He does violence very well and always looks handsome when he’s doing it. Nevertheless, in Only God Forgives – the new film by Nicolas Winding Refn – Kristen Scott Thomas is his mother and she has arrived in Bangkok to give Gosling a reason to commit hyper-stylised acts of brutality.

Upset by the death of her eldest, Mother instructs her other son (Gosling’s Julian) to get revenge. You should always listen to your mother and, really, any justification for more gratuitous Gosling ultraviolence should be eagerly pounced upon and pushed to the maximum. It’s only right that Only God Forgives follows through as a pummelling neon-lit nightmare of bloody physicality fronted by a taciturn blonde pin-up.

Only God Forgives strikes me (possibly literally) as one of the most exciting of the summer’s cinematic releases, and it’s not just because it promises exhilarating Bangkok beatdowns. The hook that’s hit me and got me hurtling towards the cinema is the fact that the film reunites Gosling and Refn for another cathartic collaboration that, I expect, will shatter my mind.

The last time the Danish director trained his cameras on the American actor, the result was Drive which I believe – and I say this without exaggeration – is one of the greatest works of modern cinema. On so many levels – the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual – the film about a nameless Los Angeles stuntman-cum-getaway driver falling in love and handling criminals (with a hammer) is, in my humble opinion, a perfect motion picture.

Ad – content continues below

Please be patient with me for a moment, as I wax lyrical and pour fancy words of praise all over a piece of pure excellence that drove itself home hard and has come to mean a lot to me. I perceive it to be an optimal audiovisual art experience. It is a moving synthesis of beauty and brutality where visceral violence is juxtaposed with sweet tenderness in vivid, stunning fashion.

Modern urban noir tropes meld with fairytale romance to form a multidimensional thriller that operates as both genre piece, love story and affecting aesthetically-pleasing expression of several facets of the human condition. Or you can simply take it as a slick movie led by a Man-With-No-Name even cooler than Clint Eastwood’s Dollars trilogy incarnation.

Your mileage may vary with Drive, and I ride it as a transcendental mandala on which to meditate upon essential soulstuff and vast existential themes. Yeah, man, it’s deep. Here I can sympathise with the disappointed Michigan woman who successfully sued the distributors because it wasn’t a straight-forward car race flick like The Fast And The Furious as she hoped. Even so, she doesn’t deserve her refund, because Drive does have impressive car chase sequences that provide entertainment if you’re not strapped into the vehicle for emotional, spiritual or philosophical introspection.

If Only God Forgives can conjure up just a quarter of the special affinity I feel with Drive, I’ll be a happy cinemagoer. I’m optimistic because of Gosling’s presence (I repeat, he’s very good) and because it’s Refn, and the director is a man I rate highly as one of the best active filmmakers on the scene today.

You may not agree, but you can’t deny that the Dane is a tremendously interesting director, both in terms of his personality and his filmography. His movies are uncompromising and always indelible, never just extinguishing and fading from memory at the point where the credits roll. The filmmaker has spoken in interviews about his wish to “penetrate” viewers, and you emerge from a Refn feature with a sense that you have been sullied in some way. There’s a dirty discomfort that lingers but there’s also a sense of illicit pleasure.

All I can offer, I’m afraid, is an amateur psychologist interpretation of his oeuvre as I try and get a handle on the more-abstract aspects that underscore these experiences (at least, my experiences when watching Refn’s films). Even in the urban settings of his features – which is all of them save the Viking saga Valhalla Rising – Refn raises something primal and pre-civilised to the fore, and forces crude raw nature on cinemagoers through highly sensual cinema.

Ad – content continues below

As well as offering spectacular visuals (partly prompted by his colour blindness) the director simultaneously dredges dark depths and takes spectators for a crawl through grim murk. The invigorating fusion of both is what makes his work so outstanding, and I thrill at the prospect of witnessing violence filmed by Refn. There are standard voyeuristic reasons for that, but even more important is the artistic fashion in which the auteur frames sadism and brutality. Accentuated by superior cinematography, sound and editing, I’d argue that only Park Chan-wook stands as a rival to Refn’s pre-eminency when it comes to making the unseemly aspects of life (and death) feel so beautiful.

The jarring attraction/repulsion response he generates is astounding and one that resonates emphatically. I’m both alienated and seduced by Refn’s works and find myself questioning myself and my irrational drives and desires when I spend time absorbing his pictures.

Is it right that the leading reason I’m psyched to see Only God Forgives is its hyped horrendous violence – something that has turned many off and prompted boos when the film played at the Cannes Festival? What does it say about me if I admit to getting the greatest kick out of Drive‘s heroic bloodshed, the brute roughness of Bronson and the uncivilised hell of Valhalla Rising? I’ve bathed in the bleak depravity of the Copenhagen underworld of the Pusher trilogy and found it utterly repellent, but yet I’m lured in and am thirsty for more at the films’ finish.

It’s not all ultraviolent, visceral atrocity and degeneracy, though. Refn’s sublime skill is in juxtaposing the animal ferocity and amoral filth with sequences of potent tenderness and human resonance.

See, for instance, the care that ruthless drug dealers Tonny and Milo show towards their children in Pusher II and Pusher III. Beneath Bronson’s bulk and antisocial aggression is a thwarted manchild who just wants to be adored and feel special. The best example is Drive‘s masterful elevator scene where Gosling’s Driver kisses Irene (Carey Mulligan) in a touching moment of romantic poignancy before shifting abruptly to stomp the face of the threatening hitman into pulpy mush.

The duality of man and themes of self-sacrifice, pure love cruelly compromised and the impossibility of escaping from the past (among many other subtexts) are all encapsulated and fluently expressed in that scene. It’s probably the perfect clip to sum-up Refn as an artist, and showcases just how powerful and deft his direction is. It’s also my favourite movie moment and it moves me to weepy-eyed wonder.

Ad – content continues below

Of course, this man’s films are wide open to a broad range of inferred readings because he’s a highly ambiguous auteur. His characters are the ones who hammer home heavy messages, but the films around them and Refn himself operate with subtle mystique.

Off-screen, he comes across as enigmatic and slightly indifferent, eluding interviewers who challenge him and demand clear explanations of himself and his creations. He isn’t here to spoonfeed audiences – here’s here to ‘penetrate’ and challenge them. How they respond to it is something they have to work out themselves.

These aren’t flicks that give you an easy ride and fly from memory as soon as you’ve seen them. Refn pierces viewers’ fragile perceptions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he forces everything on powerless victims who have no space to breathe, think and feel beneath his assaults. The audience is free to explore the portrayed worlds and draw their own meanings and readings from them.

Ambivalence is encouraged. The director builds films with relatively simple plots centred around a formidable iconic actor (Mads Mikkelsen, Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling) but they are just the penetrating instrument opening up the way for Refn – and, indeed, the viewer – to reach deep inside for maximum effect and affect.

I’m expecting similar from Only God Forgives, this time Refn’s sensibilities and distinct touch working through the medium of a vengeance narrative. Even if I don’t find the philosophical intensity of, say, Valhalla Rising or the emotional impact of Drive beneath the exotic surface features, all signs suggest that this Thai revenge opera is going to hit me hard.

I want to be hit hard by Refn, and I’m glad that he’s in the industry, determined to keep on hitting hard. He’s offering Ryan Gosling fistfights and gorgeously photographed violence in neon-lit night time Bangkok, but I don’t need special reasons or excuses to be excited about Only God Forgives or any of the director’s projects. He’s under my skin and I’m disturbed but delighted regardless. Hit me again, Refn. Hit me hard.

Ad – content continues below

James Clayton is a bit affected by Drive and is liable to start getting misty-eyed and weepy if you offer him a toothpick. You can visit his website or follow him on TwitterYou can read James’ last column here.

You can read James’ last column here.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.