‘Only God forgives’ could be the motto for many crime stories, starting with Dostoevsky and perhaps earlier. One of the most pointed if least high-toned of its meanings suggests that human forgiveness is bad for business in the underworld, because it undermines discipline and encourages rogue initiatives. Better leave it to God and stick to punishment instead. The fantasy here, shared by many fictional criminals and real readers and moviegoers, is one of perfect, scary control, ensured by infallible, extreme penalties.
This is the territory that our hero enters in James Sallis’s novel Drive and the movie of the same name directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The man thinks he can stay on the margins of crime, just drive the getaway car and not take any further part in the heists or the larger profits. It’s a living, just like his day job as a stunt man for the movies. Then one day a hold-up goes wrong, the money gets sidetracked, the little guys have to tell the middle guys, who tell the big guy, who himself (this is Los Angeles) has to worry about the bigger guys back east. Our hero, simply called Driver in the novel, unnamed in the movie, ends up with the money but doesn’t want it, and needs to kill every gangster in town just to stay alive.
Both Sallis and Refn are interested in the extremity of this predicament, but Refn, a Danish director gone international, is more interested in violence for its own sickening sake. He is not alone. Drive won the best director award at Cannes in 2011 and Only God Forgives has already been named best film at the Sydney Film Festival. Like many artists keen on violence, Refn has a sentimental side. He worries about children even as he shows us more ripped and smashed human bodies than several years’ worth of newsreels. You can see why Refn wanted Ryan Gosling to play the main character in both movies. He’s not innocent and he often looks appropriately tough and scary, especially when he decides not to change out of his bloodstained clothes, a fashion move that I hope is not going to catch on. But he mainly looks vacant, a man whose mind is somewhere else. So it seems right that he should have few misplaced qualms, antiquated moral ideas that everyone else has got rid of.
At the end of Only God Forgives, when he is supposed to be wiping out his enemy’s family, he shoots an assassin who is about to shoot a child. But then he shoots twice more. Shoots whom? We can’t see, Refn has changed our angle of vision, he is playing with our fears. Perhaps Gosling is making sure the killer is dead. Perhaps he kills the child after all, his qualms didn’t last. No, we see the child alive, and he leaves the house.
He’s just not as ruthless as his nemesis, the policeman avenger, played with eerie calm by Vithaya Pansringarm. Gosling has a name this time. He is called Julian and he runs a kick-boxing club in Bangkok. At least that’s his front. The big money comes from drugs. He is supposed to have killed a man somewhere, and his mother, Crystal, when she shows up, says he strangled his father. Perhaps that’s why he stares at hands all the time and why we get so many close-ups of them; or perhaps she’s just lying, as she seems to be most of the time. She has arrived to supervise vengeance for the death of her older son Billy, whom we have seen refusing a selection of prostitutes in a club, saying he wants to sleep with the owner’s daughter. The owner says out of the question. Billy finds the girl, sleeps with her (probably) and kills her (certainly). The dead girl was indeed the club owner’s daughter but she was also a prostitute. This is where the avenging policeman steps in. He surveys the crime scene, then allows the owner a little time on his own with Billy – enough time to beat him up strenuously and then kill him. But of course the avenger has to punish the owner for prostituting his daughter. He produces a short sword he keeps down the back of his uniform and hacks the man’s hand off. The motto ‘Only God forgives’ here seems to mean that such an easy-going God needs to be pre-empted, and our policeman is the fellow to do it.
The best line in the movie goes to Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas with nasty vulgar authority. She talks tough, bosses everyone around, insists on the superiority of her dead son over his pathetic younger brother, and generally expects to get what she wants. When Julian tells her what Billy had done, she says ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’ – meaning reasons (and morals) are for little people and family is family. The phrase is a sort of mirror of our motto. God forgives some things and the family forgives everything – without even asking what’s to be forgiven.
In this moral wilderness the policeman seems as self-indulgent and arbitrary as anyone else. Like the gangsters in Drive he likes the cleaning up more than the cleanliness. I’m not going to describe the way he pins an opponent’s arms and legs to his chair with kebab skewers, or the piercing of eyes which goes on here and in Drive. I’ll just say that when he seems to be about to slash Crystal’s face into ribbons, it’s a relief that he hesitates and pulls back – even if he does so only to plunge his sword into her throat. What seems to fascinate Refn, and to bring out all his virtuoso framing and timing, is the vulnerability of the human body, the many ways it can be torn and invaded. The interest, it seems, is not in death or even pain but something like desecration or disgrace, as in Coetzee’s novel of that title, where it is important that the bodies of unwanted dogs are not broken before they are incinerated. What does it matter to us (or to her) that Crystal should die cleanly and not in a butchered mess?
Refn’s films pose interesting questions and their violence is not unconsidered. Too considered, perhaps. There is something static and disappointing about these works, for all the talent and care that have gone into them. They proceed, if they proceed, by scene rather than incremental action, each tableau more in love with shadows, symbols and elegant cross-lighting than the last. There are curious ironies in the air too, but just hanging there. The avenging policeman likes to do a bit of karaoke in his spare time, mimicking Thai lyrics to maudlin Western tunes, his fellow policemen slumped in the night-club like zombies. We see this scene more than once. Does it mean something? Perhaps it’s a confession. Refn’s relation to his own films certainly resembles the relation between the policeman’s singing and his vigilante career: both lost in a deadpan.