Obsession, Submission, and ‘Only God Forgives’: A Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn

©ourtesy of BlackBooknicolas refn

It’s the hottest day of the summer and Nicolas Winding Refn is sitting outside in a button down shirt peeling hard-boiled eggs. When I meet the acclaimed Danish director at the Bowery Hotel, he’s eating his lunch and taking interviews in the shade, not daring to remove his sunglasses and as always, keeps it cool. This is the second time we’ve met, having previously done an interview back in 2010 for Valhalla Rising—but things were different then. Not only was I quite young and on one of my first in-person interviews with a favorite director and shaking in all-too vibrant dress, but this was before the cult of Drive and the first taste of major Refn appreciation in Hollywood. Known for his violent, color-drenched films that serve up his fetishistic urges on a platter, Refn’s oeuvre is as stimulating and arousing as it is coldly removed from the reality of everyday life. No matter the subject, his characters exist in a world of his own creating, a heightened place where the inextricable link between death and sex is always present and gesture speaks far louder than words. His films are aggressive and carnal yet rather than giving us a stark look at that sense of grit, he slowly inches us towards that internal fire, shining a light onto the beauty in the brutal. With Drive, his ferocious pop fairytale, we saw a softer side to Refn—albeit still dangerous. There was a sense of romance and tenderness we hadn’t seen before in films like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, or the Pusher films. And in the process of creating that film and exposing himself to the Hollywood fantasy, he found his American leading man Ryan Gosling, whose near-silent protagonist drove us through a bloody kinetic love story with a bite. Now having re-teamed once again for Refn’s latest

feature Only God Forgives, the two prove their symbiotic ability to transcend the work of the past and punch forward into the beyond. Set in the neon-lit back alleys and seedier parts of Bangkok, Only God Forgives is Refn’s penetrating and evocative take on the Western. It’s a film so dark—both aesthetically and tonally—that when I first arrived to see the film fifteen minutes late, I found myself sitting in the isles because there wasn’t a shred of light emanating from the screen with which to find a seat. The revenge story about the connection between mother and sons, the struggle for morality, and the fear of submission plays out like a psychotropic nightmare, aided by a brilliantly visceral score from Cliff Martinez. Starring Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives is a shot to the arm of pure id Refn. He employs the close-fisted anxious aggression of his pre-Drive days while taking his visual cues from a post-Drive world, completely blanketing us in the violent underbelly of Bangkok and putting a sword to our throat. Although the film is riddled with silence and languidly glides through darkened moments, Refn manages to hold us captive with his always-present sense of ecstatic desire. He plays on the dichotomy of what’s in and out of frame as well as what we do and not know is stirring in the characters’ psyche. It’s a film that warrants multiple viewings, but only because there’s a real pleasure in the experience of disappearing into his neon dreams and bloody obsessions, and as he says: that’s where the fun is.

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