In 1930, Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film, L’Age d’Or first screened in Paris. The response was unusual. The crowd threw eggs at the screen and then proceeded to set the theater on fire. The film was clearly Anti-Catholic and the reaction was severe. So noticeable that you could see the police storming towards the blaze from blocks away. There were riots in the streets for three days. Bunuel had challenged people’s beliefs. A repulsed right wing audience felt ridiculed and condemned the film. But as time passed, the reactionary fires weakened. Today the film is seen by critics as a truly daring masterpiece. It was just clearly ahead of its time.
In 1968, Fando y Lis screened for the first time at the Acapulco Film Festival. It did not go over well and a full scale riot broke out. The film’s director, Alejandro Jodorowski hardly managed to escape the theater without getting stoned. It was his first film. This was 38 years after the screening of L’Age d’Or. Wouldn’t you imagine the late 60s to be a time where people were welcoming art films? Apparently not in Mexico. Nevertheless, Jodorowsky survived the criticism. Like Bunuel, he grew in popularity and was later praised for his provocative and violently mystic films. Today he is celebrated as somewhat of a psychedelic cult favorite.
In May of 2013, Only God Forgives was booed at the Cannes Film Festival. Its director, Nicolas Winding Refn was panned by critics for his tasteless audacity and use of gratuitous violence. In no time, Only God Forgives was labeled as yet another offensive film that has no place in front of a respectable audience. Coincidentally, Refn dedicated this film to Alejandro Jodorowski. It’s too soon to see if this film can overcome its debut, but for the moment, it’s struggling for air in a sea of commercial debris, in Hollywood’s ever widening “Pacific Rim.”
All three of these films share one similar accomplishment — they succeeded in getting a reaction. I find it fascinating and encouraging that films still have the ability to offend people as much as they did in the 1930s. After all the garbage we’ve consumed since the invention of television, what is it we can’t handle or refuse to accept? After all, in this case, it’s just a movie, right? Perhaps to fully appreciate a film like Only God Forgives, you may just need a more open perspective on violence and symbolism, two areas that rarely coincide in popular movie-making. There’s no question that people love watching violence. Audiences who flock to gore and high death counts are usually pretty easy to please – and for years, studios have catered to these simple and consistent mindsets. However, when you implement silent stares and long takes, you challenge the hit and run formula, and this immediately creates mixed results.
Looking back on my experience watching Only God Forgives, I respect the fact that the director went after a rare aesthetic concoction, blending intense visual surrealism and methodical violence. Nicolas Winding Refn is not only worth his weight in eclectic visual gold, but there is more on the screen than just eye candy. This man is attempting to redefine genre. This was evident to many who watched his last film, Drive, (which also opened to a lot of criticism) and there is no doubt that Refn’s work is laced with influences. He utilizes elements not only from filmmakers like Jodorowski, but from a slew of crime pictures, Giallo films, and B movies. Only God Forgives is a hybrid of violence and surrealism that takes some getting used to, but has tremendous payoffs. Its hauntingly muted pace and carefully placed subtext is challenging and visceral.
I felt that many of the critiques I read for this film were a bit one-dimensional and may have led many potential viewers astray. From the opening sequence to the story’s startling climax, Refn is completely in control of what he wants to say through Only God Forgives. What many reviewers seem to have missed is that the production design and shot composition has been labored over to slowly allow meaning to rise to the surface, in the same way your eyes adjust to a dark room. Refn’s brilliant use of reds and blues and are not only symbolic in nature, but pivotal in expressing his characters’ unspoken motivations. Setting the film in Thailand’s dark and dangerous backstreets helps shroud the film in sin and corruption, illustrating a battle between two evils, and weighing in the levels of morality and loyalty that still govern the soul (even at its most violent). The acting is brilliant, and you can’t talk about this film without making a special mention of Kristin Scott Thomas, who is virtually unrecognizable as she transforms into her character on the screen. Although the film is not meant to please everyone, it has a lot to say… you just have to maintain focus to harness it.
It would be nice to see more of these kinds of films find their audience, as there is a noticeable void left to fill in genre films today. After a streak of forgettable summer blockbusters, many of us may be left in a state of story starvation. No matter what the popular consensus may be, filmmakers should not fear being criticized for their vision. The stories that challenged the norm in 2013 may not be under as much scrutiny as those made in 1930, but filmmakers have to make the effort. As Hollywood execs look back at all the safe bets they churn out this summer, they’ll see fading numbers, and proof that people are tired of the same stories and rehashed superpowers. It’s up to new filmmakers to use this as fuel, as an opportunity to make something different. Perhaps it’s time we learn one lesson from the action stars we see on screen and walk away from exploding cars without a care… and into the vista of explosive ideas ahead.