Ryan Gosling has now made two ultra-stylized and ultra-violent movies with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The first one was “Drive,” an ambitious blend of American crime drama and European art film that won Refn the best-director prize at Cannes in 2011 and became one of that year’s signature films. Some people loved it and others hated it; one viewer tried to sue Refn and the distributors, I guess for not putting enough driving in it. Gosling’s iconic performance as a knight errant of the L.A. streets with an embroidered scorpion on his back propelled him to the unsustainable peak of his Internet fame, which – as I discovered this week – he still isn’t all that eager to talk about.
While "Drive" sent many critics into transports of ecstasy, Refn and Gosling’s new film, “Only God Forgives,” has been subjected to a severe critical backlash that began with a chorus of boos at the Cannes press screening. This is recognizably a work informed by the same sensibility and the same set of obsessions, but if you're yearning for “Drive 2,” set that aside right now. Yes, "Only God Forgives" has the trappings of a thriller, including hit men, hookers, Thai boxing scenes, a vengeful super-cop and a thoroughly reprehensible American crime family, set against the lurid night-world of Bangkok. Gosling’s character looks like the hero of an action movie, at least. But any resemblance to conventional or commercial crime cinema ends there, and it’s better if you know that going in. Whether this is a conscious decision or the result of his peculiar artistic process, Refn has little or no interest in giving the audience what it thinks it wants.
As I wrote from Cannes, “Only God Forgives” is an abstract, dreamlike and heavily symbolic work that burrows deep into David Lynch territory. It’s driven largely by Gosling’s impassive face, the throbbing, haunting electronic score by Cliff Martinez, and cinematographer Larry Smith’s camera, crawling like a wounded gangster through the blood-red corridors and over-decorated interior spaces. There are certainly episodes of sadistic violence in this movie that will be tough on some viewers, but I was reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous response when a 1960s interviewer noted that there was a lot of blood in “Pierrot le Fou.” It wasn’t blood, Godard said. It was red.
I'm not sure "Only God Forgives" entirely hangs together, but I'm also not sure it tries to. This is an extraordinary visual and sonic journey; as Gosling puts it, you simply have to take this drug and see where it takes you. Much of the criticism stems from a widespread expectation that Refn and Gosling would push in a more commercial direction, instead of doing quite the opposite. On a second viewing, I almost entirely set aside the vestigial plot and the telegraphic snatches of dialogue (“We’ll find him, and we’ll kill him”) and focused on the experience as a hypnotic and sometimes nightmarish meditation, alternately seductive and repulsive. You can certainly apply those adjectives to Kristin Scott Thomas’ startling performance as Crystal, an American bitch goddess in the Donatella Versace mode. Crystal shows up in Bangkok after the death of her despicable eldest son, Billy (Tom Burke), ready to lay waste to the entire city to get revenge.
Gosling plays Julian, Crystal's younger son, who is undeniably the central character but, as Gosling himself puts it, is more like a video-game avatar than a normal movie hero. Julian seems to be trying to conserve energy, and perhaps emotion as well. He avoids falling in love with his prostitute semi-girlfriend (Rhatha Phongam), he avoids doing anything to avenge Billy’s murder (he has his reasons) and he avoids thinking about the Oedipal and/or incestuous nature of his relationship with Crystal. Julian would also be wise to avoid the righteous and perhaps deranged sword-bearing cop-ninja-angel (played by the excellent Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm, or “Pu”), who first appears in Julian’s nightmarish visions and then confronts him in the real world as well. But Mommy won’t let him.
Scott Thomas’ most memorable scene comes in an acid-tongued dinner monologue, during which Crystal heaps the vilest abuse on Julian and his girlfriend – ordering their meals in between insults -- while he just sits there in his perfectly tailored suit. Gosling never speaks in the scene, but according to Refn his much-beloved star supplied all the most disgusting epithets. That was where I wanted to start when I met Gosling and Refn in a high-rise Manhattan hotel suite overlooking Central Park on a steamy summer afternoon. (Gosling was dressed casually, in jeans and a striped T-shirt; Refn was wearing an ensemble of shorts, dress shirt and cardigan that made him look like a new member of AC/DC.) First, of course, we had to talk about the Internet, and Fabio.
I was telling my wife that I was going to meet you today, Ryan, and the weird part was that I kind of had to explain who you were. She doesn’t go to the movies, so she only knows about you from having seen, like, 10 million pictures of you on the Internet. So she asked me, “Is he actually the most feminist movie star ever, or does he just look that way?” I said I didn’t know how to answer that question and I would ask you.
Ryan Gosling: Well, if you don’t know how, I don’t know how. [To Refn.] Do I look like a feminist?
Nicolas Winding Refn: [Disbelieving.] A feminist? [Long pause.] I think that …
R.G.: Oh, forget it. [Laughter.] I don’t want to know.
You don’t want to know the answer to that question?
No. I’d rather live in the dark. It’s nice here.
I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable.
No, it’s not your fault. The Internet’s a bit of a minefield, so … [Long pause.]
So you don’t necessarily want to go there. To look at it more generally, it must be very weird to be famous in the particular way you are. In the old days, people could write things about movie stars in their scrapbooks or whatever, but that was private. Now those scrapbooks are out there for everybody to see —
Right, yeah. And it can’t be about me. I assume it’s just a wrong place, wrong time kind of thing. I feel like -- remember when Fabio got hit in the face with a pigeon? [Laughter.] While riding a roller coaster?
N.W.R.: Fabio who?
R.G.: You know, Fabio. The romance-novel guy.
He’s a male model with long blond hair and a big chest …
R.G.: Italian …
N.W.R.: Oh, him?
R.G.: Yeah, he was on a roller coaster —
N.W.R: And he got hit by a bird? [Laughter.]
R.G.: And while it was going down, a seagull flew into his face, or a pigeon flew into his face, and he killed the pigeon and broke his nose. [Laughter.] When he came down, he had feathers in his hair, and blood all over his face, and it’s just like, I don’t think —
N.W.R.: Was that on the Internet?
R.G.: What do you mean?
N.W.R.: That Fabio’s nose got broken, can you see it —
R.G.: Yeah, yeah, you can see it. So I vacillate between feeling like him, feeling like Fabio, or feeling like the pigeon, depending on which day.
Right. You’re saying that you have to relate to that stuff as not having anything to do with you. It has to do with the people who put it up, I guess.
I have to look at it that way.
Otherwise, what? You’d become an insane person in a very short time --
Yeah, yeah. You can imagine, I’m sure.
Well, no, probably not. But if I wanted to make the case that you were, indeed, a feminist movie star, I’d have to contend with the fact that, according to Nic, you came up with the horrible phrase that Kristin says in the film, when she calls your girlfriend a “cum-dumpster.”
R.G.: [To Refn.] Yeah, what’s up with that, by the way? Throwing me under the bus like that?
N.W.R.: Look, I was just saying, I asked Ryan …
R.G.: No, no -- they’re very brave to do it, but then when it comes time to cop to it, they’re gonna pass it over here. By the way, that was a misunderstanding, because I said to Kristin, “You should call her a dumb hipster,” and I can’t take responsibility for how she heard that.
I see. That sounds like a rehearsed response, unfortunately. We’re getting into an area of controversy here! Your character in “Only God Forgives” is unusual in a lot of ways, or maybe he’s a more extreme version of things you’ve done in other films. Have you ever played a character that gets his ass kicked as badly as this guy does?
I get my ass kicked a fair bit, yeah. But with this one I really got it handed to me.
I was talking to Nic earlier about the dynamic of using a very well-known actor, a movie star, to make this strange and dark film. You’re very capable of playing a macho guy, an action hero. This guy looks like one, but he gets undercut the whole way through. You know, your mom talks about your cock being smaller than your brother’s, and this old Thai guy completely kicks your ass while you can’t even get a punch in.
Yeah, I thought that was kind of an interesting direction to go. Nic was just trying to emasculate this action hero archetype as much as he could. And it was funny.
Nic, was that the idea for Ryan’s character from the beginning?
N.W.R: Well, it’s not like I have a list of things I have to cross off. But, you know, there was a combination of things. One of them was the image of the clenched fist. I don’t know if I talked about this at Cannes, the idea that the clenched fist is the ultimate symbol of male aggression, and at the same time, it’s an extension of the sexual phallus. So sex and violence, in one movement, is very apparent and when you open your palm, it’s submission. And then there’s the idea of a mother-and-son relationship, which is essentially what the film is about. Being chained to the womb, and not having any control over that, is very dramatic. But it’s also a very complicated issue, especially from a male perspective. There’s the revolting feeling of a sexual relationship with your mother on one side, and the flip side is there’s also something very erotic about it. It’s such a primal instinct that it keeps on appearing again and again in various expressions since the beginning of time.
R.G.: So pulling down the action hero piece by piece, I think, became part of that, but it wasn’t to get like …
N.W.R.: It wasn’t like that was the plan. It just kind of grew out of that.
Ryan, what are the special challenges in playing a character who hardly says anything? I mean, you’ve done versions of that before – the man of few words. But this guy really doesn’t say anything.
R.G.: I mean, obviously your instinct is to want to talk and be, you know, involved. [Laughter.] I mean, that’s my instinct, anyway. I feel like I’m getting a reputation or something for not talking in movies, but up until “Drive,” I feel like I had played very articulate, like, overly communicative characters, so it was an interesting break from that. But, yeah, I mean, in this film it was different. I felt more like a vehicle for the experience, you know, as opposed to a character. So it was just about trying to stay out of the way of that, not trying to become competitive in that way. Not trying to, like, assert my own ideas about the scene or the character. In this film, it was more like being in a video game or something. You follow that character around, but that character is a bit of a mystery in the world of the game. It’s a lot more about the characters that the avatar interacts with.
That’s an interesting way of putting it. That certainly describes that long scene at the center of the film, where Kristin is abusing you and abusing your girlfriend, while you sit there the whole time without speaking. How much did you guys talk about how to approach that scene and what you should be doing? Or did you just sort of do it?
N.W.R.: I mean, I shoot my films in chronological order, which has to do with the buildup and the overall view and seeing how it unfolds and mutating it. We had different versions of how that scene was going to play out, as the movie went along, and until we got to do the scene, we didn’t actually know what was going to be the essential outcome of that confrontation. I had originally written an idea that suddenly didn’t ring true anymore, once we started. So then we would meet up, and say, “What else could then happen? What else could be said if that’s not important anymore, if the film has suddenly changed into something else along the way?” Rather than thinking up what it is, it was all about what it is not. Like, what shouldn’t we say? What shouldn’t we talk about?
Of course the core of the scene was always this classic thing, you know, the son brings home competition to his mother, and his mother devours that. At the same time, we needed to reveal information about what had happened in the past in the family. So as we progressed, we came up with these beats we needed to hit. These were the elements. One of them was, what would be the worst thing you could call a woman in America? And not being a native English speaker …
OK, now we’re back to “cum-dumpster” again.
R.G.: There were a lot of ideas thrown around. Luckily they’re not recorded anywhere.
N.W.R.: But that’s very much how we work, now that we’ve done two movies together. I mean, we talk! We have smart talks. We talk about life, we talk about philosophy, but we also don’t talk a lot. Do you know what I’m saying?
So Ryan, as you sit there listening to Kristin ream you out, are you thinking about anything? Because to me it looked like you were doing Zen meditation or having an out-of-body experience, like you’re barely there.
R.G: Yeah, I’m not really thinking. Like I said, I tried in this film -- Nic talked about it being a dream, and having this dream feeling, and not being really realistic. So, you know, if you invest too much in it, it starts to take on a realism that can break that effect. It’s like, in the way that Nic directed this film, if a fly was in the window and you went to swat at it, it would break you out of the dream state that he’d been working to create. So it’s more about trying to remove yourself from it. You’re a symbol; you’re not really a character.
I want to ask about the last scene in the film, the final violent confrontation between Ryan and the Thai cop, but without giving anything away. I had a conversation with somebody at Cannes right after seeing it, about the question of whether what we see in that scene is “really” happening in the context of the film, or is more like a dream or a fantasy. I was inclined to say that that’s the wrong question, because the movie has put us in a space where that difference doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist.
N.W.R.: Well, yeah, no. We have a tendency nowadays, especially because of the speed of information and the way that our lives, our being, are organized, to look for logic. Everything has to have a logical meaning, because that way we consume it faster, and we can then move on to something else. Our everyday lives are about speed. What we achieve in a lifetime now, compared to just 50 years ago, is enormous. When it comes to art, especially art in a mass-market sense, it’s very much about consuming. As you know from being in Cannes so many years, people walk in and say, “OK, what is this? Got it, I’m out. Now I can go do what I need to do.”
I always find it more interesting asking what it’s not. That suddenly forces everything in a different direction. If you ask what something is not, you’re going to come up with a vault of other questions that follow that. [Picking up his water bottle.] If you look at this bottle from two different perspectives, you’re essentially asking the same question again. It becomes more and more clear, but you have to take time. As we were talking about earlier, when the film was over, you were still thinking about it, because the question was still within you. That’s what art is meant to do. It’s meant to travel with you, it’s meant to penetrate you and stay with you. We live in a time where we define art as just good or bad. In your profession, it’s come down to a star meter. It’s like, “How was your Chinese food last night? It was good, it was bad.” It’s important to remember that what art can do is inspire thought. For that purpose, good or bad really has no relevance. Because it can be good for all the bad reasons, or it can be bad for all the good reasons. I think it’s important that we sometimes just ask what it’s not, because it forces us to stay with it longer.
Ryan, I know you weren’t in Cannes, but I’m sure you’ve heard that early reactions to this movie were, uh, mixed, to put it mildly. One thing we can say clearly is that it isn’t “Drive 2,” and people who wanted that were extremely disappointed. [Laughter.] Did you know you were making a way more challenging movie, going into it?
R.G.: I don’t know if it was more challenging, at least for me. In what way do you mean more challenging – for the viewer?
Oh, I think it’s definitely more challenging for the viewer.
Yeah, well, because Nick works chronologically, there’s no real way of knowing what the film is. It’s just like, “Do you want to take this drug or not,” you know? [Laughter.] And you wake up from it when it’s over and figure out what kind of damage was done. But it’s an experience, and I think that’s what Nic is trying to create in the film as well, the kind of experience where there’s no real way of knowing what it’s going to be while you’re doing it, let alone before.
I wanted to ask you guys about your attitude toward the violence in your movies. It seems that you want to make us uncomfortable about it. You want to remind us that violence is a terrible thing, in the real world, but you also feel the allure of fantasy violence, movie violence. The director James Gray once told me a story about seeing the Clint Eastwood film “Unforgiven” with a large audience in L.A., who started cheering at the end of the film, when Eastwood kills Gene Hackman and then kills everybody in the room. He was horrified, of course. But are you trying to evoke that kind of reaction, or criticize it?
R.G.: I don’t know. Christina Hendricks got her head blown off in “Drive.”
N.W.R.: Standing ovation!
R.G.: Yeah, people started cheering. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen! [Laughter.] They just were so happy.
And that wasn’t what you had in mind. Or was it?
N.W.R: [Uncertain.] We-e-ll, but – there’s something very erotic about that.
"Only God Forgives" is now playing in many cities, including Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Ithaca, N.Y., Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, New Haven, Conn., New York, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, with wider release to follow. It's also available on demand from cable, satellite and online providers.