This may be the last time we see Ryan Gosling, one of the finest actors of his generation-cum-Internet obsession, in front of the camera for a while.
In Only God Forgives, he plays Julian, an American living in Thailand who runs a local boxing club, which serves as a front for a drug-smuggling operation lorded over by his vicious mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. When his brother is killed after brutally raping and beating an underage prostitute to death, Julian’s mother tasks him with finding the killer(s) and seeking vengeance, which brings him face-to-face with a sword-wielding police lieutenant known to locals as the “Angel of Death” (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The incredibly violent, exquisitely-lensed film reunites Gosling with his Drive director-bromance partner, Nicolas Winding Refn, and is the last film of Gosling’s in front of the camera before what he’s said will be a self-imposed hiatus (he’s currently in post-production on his directorial debut, How To Catch A Monster).
One of the things that people are talking about in Only God Forgives is the sparse dialogue. Why did you choose to go this route? And was the script beefier when you went into production?
REFN: There was more talk. There always is.
GOSLING: It’s a bit of a tradition in Nic’s films. [Laughs]
Not in the Pusher films, though, or even Bronson. It seems like a recent trend with Valhalla Rising, Drive, and now this.
REFN: The Pusher series is very much about authenticity. The other films are more about heightened realities, which allows more diversity. When you’re shooting in chronological order, which we also did on Drive, you come to scenes and realize there are other ways to convey this. And then when people finally talk, it has a much more resonant feeling. Sometimes you’re so accustomed to having dialogue be your main source of information, and if you remove that aspect of it, you’re forced to substitute in other parts of the process. Hand gestures and looks become so much larger, and it builds a larger universe.
Ryan, you had a great description of Drive where you said something to effect of “it’s like a John Hughes movie with people’s heads getting blown off.” How would you describe Only God Forgives?
REFN: You know, I met John Hughes’s son recently.
REFN: He flew in from Chicago, and he has a present for you and me.
GOSLING: I’m scared.
That does sound really ominous.
GOSLING: But I’d describe this one as “A Nightmare On Elm Street meets Bloodsport.” [Laughs]
I like that. Now, since the dialogue is so scarce, and since the atmosphere is “more resonant,” the scenes of extreme violence are way more shocking as well. What was your approach towards the film’s grislier scenes?
REFN: It’s like you measure your sex life: it’s all about the movement. It’s a hard question to answer because if you approach everything like a fetish, it’s just what goes with your feelings, what arouses you, and there’s a very similar aspect to the act of creating sex and violence.
When it comes to the relationship between sex and violence in the film, both Ryan’s character and the character of his brother seem to be sexually impotent, thanks, it seems, to their Oedipal relationship with their mother, and they seem to get their “release” through violence.
GOSLING: I can’t separate myself because I’m friends with Nic, and one of the things that I admire about Nic is that he makes films that are personal to him. After Drive, he had a lot of opportunities to do big things, and since we’re friends we talk about that stuff, but at the end of the day he decided to make this small film that’s personal, that would clearly divide people. I think violence is such a part of him—in the way that he was watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before school as a kid. It’s a language that he speaks, and then at a certain point, it stops feeling even violent. It becomes more a way that he expresses himself. So I don’t think of the film, or the character, in literal terms. With Drive, it was a little different because he was The Driver, but in this, the character is more of a vehicle—the car. The character is a vehicle in which the audience experiences this world, and it’s more about the characters and experiences he encounters. The character is sort of an avatar.
You do get your ass handed to you badly in the film by the antagonist, played by Vithaya Pansringarm. Have you ever gotten your ass beaten in real-life?
GOSLING: Every day of that fight scene. Nic does a lot of takes, and we did that a lot. But I love that the character loses, because we had talked about him winning—for ego reasons, you’d rather not get your ass handed to you so easily, but it just made more sense because we were working with the guys who trained them on Ong-Bak, and it would be strange for me to be training for a month and then turn around and beat them. It just didn’t feel right. And it seemed like Nic was trying to emasculate and castrate this supposedly clichéd action hero.
REFN: With the fight scenes, I had the idea that it would be interesting for them to shot in wide shots, so there had to be impact between the performers—no stunt doubles or cutaway designs. Those three days, there was a lot of falling on concrete, and then I’d go, “Great!” I was going to do this film before Drive, and then we met, and Drive became an ironic fantasy from that, but I’ve always had this idea that in fight films, the dominating image is the clenched fist. I’m not a violent person—I wouldn’t even know how to fight—but the idea of a clenched fist is a very aggressive symbol, and a symbol of male violence. At the same time, it’s an extension of male sexuality—a phallic symbol. So the gesture is a combination of sex and violence. When you open your palm, there’s submission, and I felt like there was a movie going from a closed palm to an open palm. Of course, other elements had to be added in to underscore that concept, and it also became a mother-son movie.
The antagonist loves him some karaoke in the movie. What’s your go-to karaoke song?
GOSLING: We sang some “MacArthur Park” [by Jimmy Webb]. A lot of that going on during filming. But I’d probably do something like “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa. It’s easy, you can’t mess it up. “Can’t lose it… push it.” And it’s true. You gotta push it.
GOSLING: You gotta push it real good.
You really seem to excel at playing “the outsider,” or “God’s Lonely Man,” as Thomas Wolfe would describe it. Here, that juxtaposition between character and milieu is heightened because you’re an American in Thailand, but it still seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to the characters you play. Why do you identify so strongly with “the outsider”?
GOSLING: Cause I’m Canadian. I think that’s it. When you’re a Canadian, you’re always watching America from the outside, from afar.
One of the most memorable scenes in Only God Forgives is the disastrous date that your character has, hiring a prostitute to pose as his girlfriend and meet his mother, only to have the mother see right through the charade and rip you both to pieces. It sort of reminded me of that scene in Taxi Driver where De Niro takes Cybill Shepherd to a porno flick in Times Square on their awkward first date. What’s the most shambolic date you’ve ever been on?
REFN: I’ve never really been on a date, because I’ve been with the same girl since my early twenties, but on our first date, I showed her The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. [Laughs] I was like, “Hey, you’ve got to see this!” And we’ve been together ever since.
GOSLING: I think pretty much all of them have been a sham. I think I’ve blocked them all out. [Laughs]