Is Nicolas Winding Refn for real? That’s what a lot of viewers are going to ask themselves when they exit Only God Forgives, the Drive director’s gruesome, Bangkok-set gangster film, which reunites him with Ryan Gosling. Infamously booed when it made its debut at Cannes, the movie, comprised of fetching poses, meme-worthy lines, and Refn’s trademark arterial splatters, epitomizes polarizing cinema, capable of dividing audiences into camps of wowed surrenderers and naysayers calling “bullshit.” Like Drive, Only God Forgives thrives on radical juxtaposition, wildly amping up the gore of the former film’s shocking elevator scene (wherein Gosling’s Driver stomps a foe’s skull to bloody bits), while presenting an overall aesthetic that’s meticulously gorgeous—the work of an image-maker ceaselessly obsessed with showy formal details.
Meeting me in an outdoor terrace on the ground floor of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel, Refn consistently personifies what he elicits with his art, answering questions in a manner that’s passionate, compelling, and direct, but interjected with off-kilter bits that could cause a listener to cock his head like a startled dog. More than Bronson, Valhalla Rising, or any of his previous efforts, Only God Forgives implies that the Danish-born auteur is, tonally and visually, inspired by freaky greats like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, whose stone-faced horrors are laced with near-imperceptible, near-indescribable levity. Sipping espresso like the brutally picky mafioso from Mulholland Drive, Refn fascinates as he links violence to sexuality, as well as when he likens crafting a scene to playing with Sylvanian Families dolls. So is this guy for real? Probably, but like his work, it’s open to interpretation.
Someone told me recently that he was thrown by your statement that Drive was inspired by Pretty Woman, but it immediately made a certain sense to me. So I went back and watched the openings of both films, and, stylistically, at least, it’s all there: the L.A. cityscape, the tacky text, the ’90s synth music, the car. What else links those two films for you?
Well, what’s interesting about Pretty Woman is that, on one side, it’s an extremely fluffy, over-romanticized Cinderella reconstruction. And part of Drive is very fluffy, and pink, and sentimental. But part of Pretty Woman is very dark and twisted. It’s just all hidden inside all of this fluff. So, in a way, Garry Marshall, man—he made Drive before I made Drive.
Did Only God Forgives have any surprising influences like that?
Well, Only God Forgives is more pure fetish. There’s a film called The Evil Cameraman by Richard Kern. It’s a short film from the early ’90s that made quite an impression on me when I was a teenager, and it consists of a man coming in and tying up a woman, while we hear rock music. The woman submits herself to being tied up in some kind of sexual fetish. It was extremely frightening when I saw it, but there’s also something very erotic about it.
You brought up the color pink. At a Q&A after a screening of Drive, you said that you used that color for the credits because you wanted something unexpectedly masculine—so traditionally feminine that it went “beyond masculine.” In Only God Forgives, you’ve moved on to explore the color red in a big way. What does that color mean to you beyond the obvious connotations of blood?
Red is, on one level, a very frightening image, because it’s what we would look at if we were to open up ourselves. And yet, it’s also very erotic. What else can I say?
You could name some films that use the color red that might have inspired you.
I don’t know. What films use the color red?
Well, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Red, for one.
I never saw that.
At the press conference for Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling mentioned that, from Drive to this film, he went from driver to vehicle, and similarly, between the two projects, you’ve shifted devices and anatomical symbols, going from driving to fighting, and from focusing on eyes to focusing on hands. Any thought on those changes?
Well, it sounds really right. Some days ago, somebody asked a question regarding Bronson, and about how that and my previous film, Valhalla Rising, were done back to back. Of course they’re very different, but they’re like two sides of the same coin. Like there’s no middle. And Drive and Only God Forgives were also made back to back, so again, there’s that idea of a flip, with no middle ground. I think Only God Forgives is just another obsession. It’s more pin-up, for me. Whereas the eyes, in Drive, were more visualizing what the film is about? Maybe? As for the devices, Drive isn’t a film about cars, it’s a film about a guy who has a car. And Only God Forgives isn’t about fighting, it’s about a man who fights, because of…
His psychotic family and upbringing?
Well, that’s where you come in and fill in the dots.
I’ve heard there was a lot about this project that unfolded organically given your chronological shooting style, but planned or not, it’s pretty clear, from this film and others, that you have your share of Freudian interests. What’s your relationship with your parents like? I know they’re also in the business.
It’s great. They’re very supportive, especially my mother, from the very beginning. I grew up with my mother and stepfather. He’s a photographer.
And what do they think of your work?
Hopefully they’re happy [laughs]. My mother has only said nice things. As far as the violence, I think she looks beyond that.
I’m sure you’ve been asked thousands of questions about the violence.
Thousands doesn’t even describe it.
Well, what I want to know is if it’s a struggle to maintain the balance between the violence and the elegance, and if so, what that struggle is like.
It’s always a struggle, but I think if you approach violence as a sexuality, it’s all about the build-up to a climax. The first image I had for Only God Forgives was a clenched fist, because it’s such an iconic image of male brutality, and masculine entertainment. But it’s also an extension of a phallus, and the more you clench your fist, the more of a phallus it symbolizes. So, the act of sex and violence, in one gesture, is very interesting. You can look at it in the sense that, the more your fist clenches, it heads toward the moment of impact, and then it unclenches. It’s like a climax, and then there’s submission. That’s what I wanted to make a movie about.