The new film from the writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, "Only God Forgives", is set in Bangkok. That's what my notes say, anyway, and I don't like to let that kind of thing get past me. I spent most of "The Spy Who Loved Me" asking my mother "Why are they in Egypt?" and "How did he get on the submarine?", then subjecting her answers to a Wittgensteinian storm of scepticism. To be precise, "Only God Forgives" is set in a neon-lit underworld where men meet in darkened clubs to fight, bet and exchange terse threats, although such is the minimalist spirit of the film, which runs to a trim 90 minutes, that when someone actually says "Bangkok" it seems like over-sharing.
Really, it's set in Hades. Advance word had it that "Only God Forgives" had even more violence in it than Refn's last neon shocker, "Drive". That's not strictly true. It just has a lot less of everything else. Think of it as a string of violent acts, sandwiched between scenes of hallowed silence, strung together with a thin noodle of plot, and dialogue that sounds like action-movie haiku: "Time to meet the devil", "I'm looking for a girl", "How could you do it?" and the most ominous of all, "I want you to meet my mother." If you think that's funny, you should meet the mother, a peroxide-blonde castratrix in zebra-print, played by Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace.
Like David Lynch before him, Refn approaches the thriller form with the eyes and heart of a kid glued to the television screen way past his bedtime, seeing things beyond his understanding, and now, as a grown man, hell-bent on recreating something of the same palpitating shock and wide-eyed abstraction, like something remembered in a dream: down corridors of arterial red walks Ryan Gosling in slow-mo, his head full of harm. The result is somewhere between a Bruce Lee movie and a Brian Eno album.
Gosling has a character to play, and doubtless a name, but really he is just The Guy Who Clenches and Unclenches his Fists To Quell the Tumult Within. "He's a very dangerous boy," says his mother, and while you hesitate to disagree with her, you have to ask: when Refn was doling out the gratuitous violence, couldn't he have put a little more of it Gosling's way? I was a big fan of the way he chewed on that toothpick throughout "Drive", maybe the best use made of a toothpick since Steve McQueen swapped his from one end of his mouth to the other in Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway". We need our cool cats just as much as our hotheads, but here Gosling's studies in movie minimalism evaporate into studly mooching. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, often illuminated by a single lozenge of light, he stares with the intensity of a man wholly consumed by the task of not blinking.
This fractured abstraction took me back to John Boorman's "Point Blank" (1967), another union between a European director and an American star. But in its central character, as played by Lee Marvin, could be glimpsed a soul in recoil—specifically, from the violence Marvin had dealt with on active duty in the Pacific. Nobody is asking Gosling to enlist in Afghanistan, but it's safe to say that "Only God Forgives" hammers the last nail in the coffin of the Method. "The idea is," Brando said, "you learn to use everything that happened in your life." Most of today's stars have been stars since the age of 12; their idea of experience is a hell-raising escape from the salt mines of "The Mickey Mouse Club".
The overriding impression given by many performances these days is not darkness, or grit, or toughness, but the urge to be thought dark or gritty or tough. Think of Natalie Portman busting a gut to acquire a dark side in time for her turn as Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan". That film hit a chord precisely because it was about the dearth of experience among the iGeneration. Or Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby, one of his greatest performances because it eschews the prosthetics and method mannerism with which he has sought to cover any hint of callowness and instead faces it head on: his Gatsby is a handsome, hollow golden boy, shielding himself from the eyes of the press, buoyed by the decade in which America discovered the intoxicating effects of fame. He is, in effect, the first celebrity.
That, funnily enough, is something this generation are fluent in: fame—its valence, its charge, its Möbius twists. This summer brought two movies, "The Bling Ring" and "This is the End", in which stars either played themselves or were included on screen as a sign of realism—a sort of celebrity trompe-l’œil. The wormhole between our world and theirs that Charlie Kaufman found in "Being John Malkovich" is now a freeway. It has changed the way audiences take in performances. We don’t go to "Black Swan" to submit to the subtle self-forgetting of Portman's acting; we go to see her take a graffiti-can to her princess image. We don't go to "Gatsby" to see DiCaprio disappear into the title role; we go to see how much of him shows up in it.
Every time a bomb goes off, a slew of articles arrive asking if movie stars are capable of drawing audiences any more—a flat-footed conclusion. The fans who made stars of Gosling and Portman will not be denied. The Method may be dead, but tween audiences are bringing about the Second Coming of the Movie Star.
Only God Forgives out now