Release date: December 2nd, generic 2013
Running time: 90 minutes
Country of origin: Denmark / France
Writer and director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Burke, Vithaya Pansringarm
‘I love violence,’ says Billy.
I’ve always been fascinated by violence, but not actual violence, obviously. Actual violence – on the limited occasions I’ve seen it or been involved in it – has always made me nauseous and not in a good way, and it tends to hurt. Actual violence to movie violence is like real whisky compared to Mad Men whisky, which can be knocked back ad infinitum and causes nothing more than the odd grimace. Movie violence comes in several forms.
There’s the cartoonish, knockabout stuff of Jackie Chan or Three Stooges films, and there’s the balletic – though I’ve never quite understood that term – of the slow motion merchants such as Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. Then there’s the realistic violence: Saving Private Ryan or Ken Loach’s villains in Raining Stones and Looking for Eric might be examples, though this is perhaps the most problematic category.
Then there’s the Ultra Violence. Here violence seems to be the reason for the film itself, a motivating factor and maybe even something the film is striving to do to the audience. An Ichi the Killer might be a good place to start with its extended scenes of torture and brutality which revel in the sado-masochism of its characters as it produces a similar effect on the audience. The squeamish are banished and even the toughest feel the film is as much an ordeal to be undergone as a movie to be enjoyed. A Clockwork Orange, despite giving us the term ‘Ultra Violence’ isn’t particularly violent, and strangely – despite the debates and the controversy – doesn’t actually have much to say about violence. Ultra Violence is far more visceral than the dance like routines Kubrick comes up with. Seeing things happen to other bodies does something strong to our bodies. It isn’t simply the detachment of the voyeur. If it works, we wince; we throw up and storm out.
Plenty of people walked out of Only God Forgives when I saw it at the press screening in Cannes. Of course, it was 8.30 in the morning and many had been partying hard the night before, but these were a hardened bunch. Something must have stirred them up and Nicholas Winding Refn’s film seemed hell bent on provocation. The story is simple hard boiled crime thriller stuff, quickly enough recounted. Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a boxing club as a front for his family’s drug smuggling. Billy’s filled with a weird nihilistic rage, or he’s come to the South East Asia, drawn to the same kind of perceived license as Gary Glitter. Okay, leave that bit there.
Following a particularly heinous rape-murder, Billy’s murdered and Julian finds himself in the position of having to exact revenge egged on by his recently arrived mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), who feels like an evil drag artist pretending to be Cameron Diaz. All of this is complicated by the presence of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a policeman and angel of death of preternatural calm and the capacity to exact the bloodiest most gruesome violence on those he judges to be guilty. He’s the unstoppable force and before which Julian finds himself a very moveable object.
There’s a glowering Lynchian darkness to all this, and a throbbing always-evil Cliff Martinez score, which technically is absolutely captivating. The Ultra Violence comes almost as a Hitchcockian exercise in extremes, so well played as to be almost a swottish in the devious bloodiness of its execution. A King Lear-like scene of torture with the squeaky shoes of Chang as he circles his victim is almost a cinematic ‘how to…’ lesson in creating and dispensing tension. Throughout the film, there is ultra-low bass and savage beatings and savage dialogue:
‘He raped and killed a 16 year old girl.’
‘Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.’
We laugh, but this is disgusting.
We laugh because generically it’s hitting the kind of extreme amorality that Billy wants from the get go. Billy is the person who Nicholas Winding Refn secretly needs to justify the brutality of who Julian actually is; and who Nicholas Winding Refn wants to be. If you want to genuinely take this film seriously – and I have my doubts that this is the goal – then Thailand becomes a moral petri dish swinging between extremes of Western nihilism and Eastern severity. This of course is no more or less real than the Vikings of Valhalla Rising, the Hollywood of Drive, or the various jails of Bronson. Ultimately, Ultra Violence has become Refn’s zone and it would be a compelling one – there are take home scenes, boxing, torture etc. – if it wasn’t – as it is in this case – inhabited by the dead eyed avatars of his own nerdy obsessions.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.