Wednesday, July 24, 2013

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On Violence: A Peek at Only God Forgives

Over at The Film Experience, Michael C of Serious Film has posted his thoughts on Only God Forgives, the latest from Nicolas Winding Refn. While I agree that it's no Drive, the general reaction against the film has me concerned, particularly the consensus concern Michael voices regarding the
violence. As he puts it:

There are no human beings to be found in Only God Forgives. Only meat bags, useful as far as they can be posed in bullshit macho scenarios and then eviscerated. The film opens with child prostitution, rape, bludgeoning, and mutilation and that is only warm up for the various stabbings, beatings, scaldings, and eye gougings that follow. I should point out that any of these things I’ve listed can be redeemed in the execution. Context matters. Here they are thrown out haphazardly, in the hopes that the potency of the violence will obscure the fact that the film has not a thought in its head, nor any viewpoint on the material beyond “Isn’t this cool?”  

And here is where I disagree with him and other critics (though, please, read his comments -- I think they are reasonable ones, and we definitely agree on the problem of Kristin Scott Thomas). I commented on the page itself, but just so I have my thoughts on my own space, here it goes:

To me, the kills/scenes of gruesomeness are never about being "cool" -- they're about pushing the limits of violence as entertainment. It's repulsive and unenjoyable, but that is the intention.  I remember when the trailer first came out, how people online were all set to watch awesome Ryan Gosling be awesome again, with guys saying, "Wanna fight" to each other, either in person or online. This was gonna be like DRIVE -- it was gonna be FUN! And no, says Refn, it's not fun. Violence isn't fun. It's horrible and cruel, and gangsters and vigilantes making their own moral codes and rules are not sexy, they are terrible, awful, demonic people. By being so unrelenting, so over-the-top yet humorless, it challenges the audience to root for anyone -- and, by that same token, asks whether they should ever find entertainment in this kind of spectacle.

In a sense, I see it as a reaction against the reception of Drive, especially the glorification of its hero, a nice guy, a knight in shining armor, and a dangerous thug blessed with a pretty face. I'm guilty of it -- so, too, are the filmmakers, unless "A Real Hero" is supposed to be some kind of Taxi Driver-esque irony. Remember when the scorpion jacket went on sale? Remember how we all put the soundtrack on our iPods and blasted it while driving around? We wanted to be him, not because he exchanged longing looks with Carey Mulligan, but because he impaled people with shower rails, crushed a guy's skull with his foot, and menaced goombahs with his car. Because that? That made him cool.

So what follows this? Only God Forgives. More violence, a lot kinkier, but with fewer people to root for. Like, zero people to root for. This isn't fun. But then, it's not meant to be.

Some essential reading: my friend Evan wrote about the film, Refn, and the intersection of camp and art on his Tumblr. You should click the link! Go read it!

(I should note, by the way, that I don't think this takes away at all from the enjoyment of Drive, which I still think is a fun movie. Two different films, two different moralities at play.)

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