Nicolas Winding Refn had his biggest hit with Drive. The film may have angered some viewers enough to file a lawsuit, but it also inspired a generation of young hipsters to empower themselves by donning The Driver’s scorpion-spangled jacket. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate, but to make someone feel inspired enough to wear the jacket of a violent criminal is no small feat.
After audiences see Refn’s followup film Only God Forgives no one is going to want mimic these characters. The poppy soundtrack, stoic lead, and fairy tale romance from his previous Gosling-starring flick is nowhere to be found in this Bangkok-set crime picture. The Bronson director could have gone on to make a spiritual sequel to Drive, in terms of trying to recapture that success, but instead he has made a movie that appeals to an almost entirely different sensibility.
Refn never even considered exploring the same territory. “I was going to make this movie before Drive, so there wasn’t any thought of doing that,” he explains. Basically, there was no time for thought, either. Refn is one fast worker, and according to him, it shows onscreen. “I did Bronson and Valhalla Rising back-to-back, and I did the same with Drive and Only God Forgives. I’m sure they have effects on the extremes of both movies.”
“Extreme” is certainly a tag Refn’s filmography draws. He’s never one to shy away from brutality, and unlike Drive, there’s no sympathetic eyes to see this violent world through. In fact, Refn is following the villains of this revenge story. Our protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) is no hero, nor could he qualify as an anti-hero. Julian is exceptionally passive. Imagine a world where Forrest Gump had a crime lord mother and you’d come close to the mother-son dynamic in Only God Forgives. If Julian had his druthers, he wouldn’t have fought once in this movie. He’s pushed by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a character Refn calls the “insect who devours.”
Julian isn’t the type of role a general moviegoer would expect to see a brawny Gosling inhabit. A part of the film’s charm is how it takes one of today’s manliest leads and reduces him to a disturbed mama’s boy. The director says that subversive quality to Gosling’s performance isn’t intentional, but even while Julian isn’t a man of action, Refn certainly is.
“I love that speed,” he confesses. “The amount of creativity is really enjoyable. When I did these two films back-to-back, I thought, ‘Why do I keep on doing that?’ Maybe it’s a way for me to go from one extreme to another extreme. That’s great, because I don’t get too comfortable. I have no time in between them because there is no in between.”
As a filmmaker, Refn seems to parallel his protagonists, never seeking comfort or coziness. “You have days where you think the film is fantastic, and then within an hour, it’s horrible. That goes on and on.” That neurosis Refn speaks of all takes place before he’s even had his lunch, but he concludes, “That’s how you make a movie. You keep all that to yourself, though. If you start to panic, everyone else will panic. There is no one there to comfort you there. It’s extremely isolating.”
Before watching Only God Fogives, I skimmed through press notes. There was a quote of Refn’s in particular that stood out, saying how “good taste” is the “number one” enemy of creativity. Sometimes while speaking with Refn it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking around or not. He has a strong sense of humor about himself and his work, but when it comes to the horrors of good taste, he’s incredibly serious.
“Good taste is something everybody likes. What’s fun about that? It’s not like I’m conscious of what’s going to happen with a movie, but ‘good taste’ can mean being safe and having security. It can represent being ‘liked’, but it also means other things.”
What else can hinder the creative process? Responding point blankly, Refn says, “Ego.”
A greater sense of one’s self is an unattractive trait Refn could’ve developed after the love Drive saw, but he has his ways of remaining grounded. “You bring everybody else into a creative area where you constantly submit to the idea someone else has a better idea of how to do something.”
Refn relishes a high-degree of collaboration. While prepping Drive, he consistently invited actors to his house, working the story and spitballing ideas with them. In fact, Bryan Cranston came up with his character’s memorable gentle end. As for how that process impacted Only God Forgives, it was difficult for him to recall specifics. “There’s so many different things. It was stuff, like, ‘What would you like to wear as this character? That’s interesting. Let’s go with that. Ryan, what would you like to do with your mother?’”
And Gosling gets to do a lot with his onscreen mother in the film. Crystal and her two sons give any quirky indie family out there a run for their money when it comes to dysfunctionality. The family mob business aside, there is plenty of off-putting physical contact and, at one point, a hilarious anecdote Crystal shares over the insignificant size of Julian’s cock, creating one of the best worst first date scenes in recent movie memory. The awkwardness doesn’t stop there, either. There’s an especially telling moment where Crystal strokes her finger across Julian’s muscular arm, and then moments later, is shown aroused by a pack of beefy muscle men. That’s just scratching the surface of this Oedipus-esque tragedy, though, and as Refn describes their relationship, he concludes, “I think incest is very clear.”
Refn has always discussed his desire to direct a romantic comedy, but with Drive and Only God Forgives, he’s already made two. Both films portray a certain kind of love and, in this case, a disturbing one. Drive shows how far an individual will go to protect someone in the name of pure love, while Only God Forgives shows the danger of doing the same for unconditional love.
But he couldn’t have made either if he’d worried about good taste.
Only God Forgives opens in theaters on July 19th.