“So what’s that one? That one, right over there?”
The man behind the gun-range counter is smiling before he’s even fully turned around, undoubtedly intuiting what this tall stranger with the chic nerdy glasses, concave chest and foreign accent is asking about. He grabs the Kalashnikov off the rack and sets it down on the counter. The publicist giggles nervously. Two or three people standing nearby simply gape in awe. The customer with the glasses and the accent has a look on his face that might be described as “Christmas morning.”
“This, sir, is an AK-47,” the clerk says in a thick Texas drawl. “Just single shot, though. Don’t do semi-auto here.” He’s impassively sizing up the septet in front of him without making a big deal about it. This is Austin, where freak flags fly high next to Dixie ones; three hungover film writers, a distributor, a PR handler, a former Red Hot Chili Pepper and a Danish filmmaker is not the weirdest thing he’ll see today by a long shot. “You guys need ammo?”
Let’s say you’ve been sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room and you receive a text on your phone that says, “Cliff and Nic want to go shoot guns, would you like to come?” Like any self-respecting journalist, you reply “Fuck yes!” and immediately throw on some pants. The whole reason you’re in Austin on what the locals consider called a “kinda warm day” (the current temperature falling somewhere between “not really fit for human life” and “the surface of the sun”) is to talk to Nicolas Winding Refn and to see his latest movie, Only God Forgives, at its unofficial North American premiere several hours from now, at the Alamo Drafthouse. What else are you going to do? The day before, there were late-afternoon drinks with Refn and the film’s composer, Cliff Martinez, at a dive bar, and then a long food-truck–fuelled dinner that night, and then, this being a city known for having a good time all of the time, more drinks at an after-hours joint. Whatever happens tomorrow, you think during the wee small hours, should naturally involve either BBQ or guns.
That’s how you find yourself squeezing off a few rounds in the back of Red’s Guns & Ammo, standing beside a Cannes-coronated director who looks like a grown version of Mr. Peabody’s bespectacled sidekick, Sherman. Martinez, the other film writers and you are taking turns with the 10mm automatic and the .357 Magnum, a combination of stoic focus and fear on your mugs as the pistols jerk in your hands. Not Refn, though. He’s gone straight for the AK, shooting off a full clip and creating a crude circle of holes around his paper target’s heart. The man looks like a boy who’s died and gone to shoot-‘em-up heaven.
There’s just one scene in Only God Forgives that involves lots of firearms, a brief shoot-out at a restaurant involving Uzi-packing thugs. The rest of the film prefers to perpetrate its highly aestheticized violence via other conduits of pain: fists, feet, shish kebab skewers and, its weapon of choice, a long, sharp sword that a mystic supercop seems to pull directly out of his spine. The 42-year-old Refn has made a career out of taking hypermasculine characters—the titular “most dangerous convict in Britain” of Bronson (2008), the scarred Viking warrior of Valhalla Rising (2009), Ryan Gosling’s unnamed getaway-driver-for-hire in Drive (2011)—and forcing them to fight their way out of surreal, stylized environments.
Hence, his latest—a tale of an American ex-pat (Gosling) running a kickboxing gym in Bangkok and gunning for the head of the katana-wielding police lieutenant (Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm) who killed his brother—might be considered business as usual. Indeed, though the po-faced machismo dial seems to be set past the recommended Melville level, you can still detect something close to glee emanating from all the eye-candy mayhem; it’s not a leap to picture that overgrown kid from the shooting range standing behind the camera, grinning as eyeballs are slit open and arms sliced off.
But Refn is determined to take his Grand Guignol carnage to some truly farther-out places this time around. “Films are like drugs,” he tells the Drafthouse audience that night in his introduction. “If Drive was a coke movie, then this is more of a very good, old-school acid film.” What follows leaves you wondering if your Mountain Dew has been dosed: A man performs the ultimate act of Freudian self-destruction (it involves a womb). Gosling and Pansringarm engage in the most anticlimactic mano a mano martial-arts bout ever. Symbolic castrations abound. Everything is rendered in ultra-cool blue or blood red. There will be karaoke.
“I wanted to fight God,” he offers by way of explanation the next morning. Sitting on his hotel’s outdoor patio, he recounts how, as part of a two-picture agreement with the French production company Gaumont, he impulsively pitched doing a “fight film.” When it came time to write it, Refn and his wife were expecting their second child—and were told that the pregnancy might have serious complications. “It was months of constant angst,” the director says. “Everything was out of my control. As a man, you become very aggressive very quickly—but you can’t fight anything, because there’s nobody you can take on. Who are you going to fight, God? And suddenly, I had the movie. A man takes on someone who thinks he’s a deity. It should take place between the East and the West, between heaven and hell.” He pauses, smiles. “Naturally, we picked Bangkok.”
Refn was supposed to make the film before Drive, but scheduling complications forced him to start on his stoic-speed-demon–meets–girl epic first. The plan was to make the movies practically back to back, as the director had done with Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Then, on the day Drive premiered at Cannes, the actor who they had cast as the lead (Refn won’t say who) dropped out. “While we were in a holding pattern waiting to see what was going to happen, I met up with Ryan at the 101 Diner in L.A. and he asked me, ‘So, what are we going to do next, Nic?’ He seemed anxious to do something else together. ‘Well Ryan, I have this script…’”
Gosling signed on and six months later met up in Bangkok with Refn, who had been scouting locations and soaking up the atmosphere. Joining them was Kristin Scott-Thomas, the British actor best known for playing brittle, icy romantic interests and aristocrats; Refn had asked her to play the Gosling’s mom, a Gorgon from Miami in full mama-grizzly mode. She’d agreed to do the part, Refn states, on the condition “that she could do something completely different than what she usually does. Kristin had this idea of someone who was a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace. She had sent me pictures of a photo shoot where she had this long blond hair and turquoise nails, and I thought, Hmm, okay, it might work. Then Kristin showed up in Thailand like this sexed-up warrior goddess, and it was like, Wow, here we go!” It’s one of the more terrifying portrayals of monstrous matriarchy to grace the screen in recent memory. “Well, she is my mom’s favorite actress, so casting her here seemed…” Refn searches for the word. “Appropriate.”
At the premiere’s lively postscreening Q&A, the filmmaker had copped to using the movie to work through lots of mother issues, and answered one query with “One evening, Ryan and I were sitting around talking about our cocks, and….” Still, the most telling moment came when one patron raised her hand and simply inquired, “Regarding the movie: What the hell?!?” To which Refn smiled broadly and replied “I take that as the highest compliment!” Disassociation and a derangement of the senses is a huge part of what Refn is aiming for here, and as with his similarly acidic work Valhalla Rising, the notion of easy answers or even coherence seems antithetical to the experience of watching this bloody Oedipal soap opera. Asked to describe Refn’s modus operandi, His collaborator Cliff Martinez replies with “Courageous? That, or ‘I don’t give a fuck?’ Let’s go with the second one. He really makes movies for himself.” It’s no coincidence that the movie is dedicated to Alejandro Jodoworsky, the cult filmmaker who’s a hero of Refn’s and who gave the world such brain-frying headscratchers as El Topo and Santa Sangre. If nothing else, Only God Forgives seems be competing to be the best midnight movie of 1974.
That wasn’t what most of the folks at Cannes thought they were getting when the movie premiered at the film festival last spring to a cacophony of boos and critical jeering. (Even some of the director’s longtime fans have been a little cool on it.) Refn says he’s perfectly fine with a negative reaction, so long as it’s passionate. “I mean, it is kind of pretentious,” he admits, laughing. “But so what? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I do what I do, and I finally realized that I just approach making movies like a pornographer. I just put on the screen what I like, what turns me on.”
In other words, masculinity fetishes, extreme violence and a lysergic sense of logic turns him on? “Yeah! I mean, extreme is the key word there. I don’t do well in the middle ground. I like operating in extreme areas, whether that’s provoking a reaction of obsessive love or obsessive hate. Some folks were going to be disappointed that this isn’t Drive 2; others have told me they love it for that very reason. I didn’t make this just to be controversial, you know, but I certainly don’t mind being at the center of controversy.” It’s better to be talked about than not talked about, right? Refn nods. “It’s better to be loved or hated than shrugged at.”
So let the chips, or severed arms and bullet casings and rotten tomatoes, fall where they may; he’s already moved on to his next project, a Barbarella TV series he’s making in Europe that he says will be more faithful to Jean-Claude Forest’s comic books than Roger Vadim’s 1968 camp classic. “So there will be more of an emphasis on womens’ high heels,” Refn says, giggling. It’s hard to tell whether he’s serious or whether he’s fucking with you or not, but you get the sense that he likes it that way—just standard operating procedure for a guy who makes pop-pulp excursions that may be self-serious art or may be violent pomo put-ons. Upon leaving, he shakes your hand then makes the finger-gun gesture at you. “See you at the shooting range, man!” he says. That same gleeful AK-47 grin is back on his face with a vengeance.
Only God Forgives opens July 19.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear