Opinion | Boycott ‘Only God Forgives’

In a recent interview with the American film magazine Vulture, director Nicholas Winding Refn recalled the following conversation about how he and Ryan Gosling, the lead actor in his latest film, ‘Only God Forgives’, joked about the worst insults for women they could imagine. “I would ask Ryan: ‘So what’s the worst thing you can call a woman in America?’ He goes: ‘We call her this, and then …’ He said: ‘You call her a ‘cum-dumpster’.”

Who is this Refn? A young director following on the trajectory of Lars von Trier? Or is he someone singly focused on misogyny and violence – to the point where it becomes a fetish – who’s wasting his time creating epics of revenge in which muscle-bound, silent types kill each other and everyone around them?

Henrik Marstal

In a recent blog entry, the journalist Irene Manteufel drew our attention to the criticism attracted by the proliferation of misogynistic Facebook groups. Nevertheless, the pages are still ‘liked’ by ordinary, civilised men. Maybe they think it’s okay if someone puts a woman in her place. But what they forget is that their ‘like’ allows hate to thrive and grow.

The same holds true for ‘Only God Forgives’. Many men will likely be attracted to it, even if all the women in the film are subjected to extreme physical and mental abuse, mutilation, rape or murder. But, what the audience forgets is that by paying the price of admission they are also allowing hate to thrive and grow. 

One interesting fact about the film is that all of the women – with the exception of the leading character’s mother – are prostitutes. In other words, they are women the audience can write off as nothing but ‘cum dumpsters’, and who deserve so little respect that the public can accept what they are seeing. These women are getting what they deserve. 

Early on in the film, the main character’s older brother tracks down a pimp and tries to force him to let him have sex with a 14-year-old. When the pimp proves unable to satisfy his request, the older brother reacts by beating the crap out of the other prostitutes. Cut to the body of a 16-year-old girl who’s been raped and killed by the brother. Revenge is swift, and it takes the form of bestial murder and acts of torture that include pouring boiling oil on someone’s face, gouging out eyes and more.

No-one in the film thinks twice about the violence or the misogyny, not even the main characters’ witch of a mother, whom both brothers seemed to have an oedipal relationship with. When she learns that her oldest son has been killed in revenge for murdering the 16-year-old, she only reacts with a shrug of the shoulders and a remark that he no doubt had good reason for it. 

Disdain is for Refn’s characters a social and morally legitimate norm. Gender relations are reduced to base, socio-structural power relations as if biological reductionism between genders was the norm. 

Refn, himself, appears to be torn between being beholden to women and wanting to put them in their place once and for all. He’s an example of the type of man Andrea Dworkin has described: men that love death, particularly murder, and who celebrate it through art. For them, life without killing would be devoid of passion, meaning and action. Such a fascination for the dark side may well be common among otherwise well-adjusted Westerners in much the same way as it is for Refn and his audience.

That’s what’s so bothersome about the Danish Film Institute (DFI) spending tax money to support the production of the film. The money was no doubt given as a way to support artistic quality and help it gain international exposure. But, in doing so, the DFI uses taxpayer funds to legitimise the spread of extreme violence and extreme misogyny, apparently without thinking about what kind of consequences it could have.

If there are two things that are inseparable it is violence and disdain: violence begets disdain, and disdain always has violent undertones. It is precisely this relationship that makes the film a cultural flop of monumental proportions and one that should be boycotted immediately. 

“Come on, it’s just fiction,” critics will say. No, not entirely. Refn’s films are responsible for spreading, legitimising and promoting misogynistic attitudes. The result is that even more ordinary men will, without thinking twice about it, ‘like’ Facebook groups dedicated to violence against women. 

DFI needs to do a reality check – pronto. And Refn? Looks like he’s going to need God to do some forgiving.

The author is a musician and an author.