Only God Forgives

July 23, 2013

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Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival only to be greeted by a chorus of boos is not unusual, nor is it necessarily any real indicator of quality.  Still, the reviews from the less throaty audience members – in this case, critics – have tended to be pretty savage ever since May.  Now that it has been released properly, this has eased a little bit, with a small corner of defenders and a healthy number of “s’alright” shrugs.  Savage outcries about ultra-gory pomposity are understandable, and I imagine on a different day and in a different mood, I’d be somewhere closer to them.  As it stands, I think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is just successful enough in certain areas to overcome its many shortfalls.  So help me, I really enjoyed watching it.


Teaming up once again with Ryan Gosling after the culturally (if not financially) successful Drive, Refn has taken over writing duties, moved the crew to Thailand and made this film on about half the budget of his Los Angeles-based hero fantasy.  I bring this up not because the budget has any reflection on the film, but as a way to head off the arguments that this is a post-success, ego-driven project.  I’m not sure anyone involved was seeing this as a mainstream cross-over, and I don’t think it’s pure ego considering it’s still less abstract and hallucinogenic than Refn’s Valhalla Rising, which was fairly well regarded in a number of quarters.  The plot is exceedingly simple: An American drug dealer and boxing gym owner, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is operating in Thailand along with his brother, who brutally murders a prostitute before being murdered himself by the prostitute’s father, the latter vicious act done at the behest of the almost mystically stoic and hopelessly “moral” cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).  Julian’s vile harridan of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in town to force him to reek vengeance on all deserving for her first born son’s death.

To say this movie is pretentious is perhaps a little strong, but it’s certainly overegged.  Gosling plays Julian with his now customary blank contemplation, and when he does actually act out emotionally in one scene, it feels unconvincing and a little bit silly.  Scott Thomas has better luck playing against type as a foul-mouthed, vicious mother, and while I’m not saying that everything she does works, it is a welcome spark of life in a very portentous picture.  Pansringarm is effective as the unmovable, all-knowing arbiter of brutal justice, and though practicing his swordplay by the water at dawn is one of a number of scenes that are just that side of “too much”, he has a presence, which is all such a one-dimensional character can really have.  Indeed, the only character in this film that approaches two dimensions is Gosling’s, as he wrangles about in sub-Freudian drama.  Still, Refn isn’t very interested in depth of character, and certainly not realism.  His style is often dream-like, where he allows the music and the visuals establish a mood of existential contemplation.  The style is the substitute for explicit story and allows room for absolutely no subtlety at all.  This is grating to some, and understandably so, but it’s dark, neon streets and its blood red interiors and –my god- those wallpapers did a lot to draw me in.  The most praise belongs to the sound design, and on top of that, Cliff Martinez’s incredible score, which retreads some of the synth territories of his work for Drive while adding a fierce percussion and occasionally a delicate, somber string section.  Cinema is an audio-visual medium, and I think Refn knows he’s relying on those two components to push the film forward.

As for the story and the themes…well, they’re a bit silly.  Not totally stupid, and certainly not as offensive as many have claimed.  He’s both cynical and naïve in his belief system, or at least the belief system he’s expressing here.  The violence is often graphic and always brutal, but so is the world he’s created.  Justice can be as ugly as injustice, and by not flinching away from the gore on either side he makes sure we understand that it’s all ugly, even if it’s beautifully so.  I also appreciate that the ending withholds the usual release audiences expect for something harder and less viscerally satisfying.  There’s a degree to which he really does subvert the normal revenge picture, and that deserves credit.

So here we have a film that is both smarter than it’s genre but not as smart as it thinks it is.  For all of its self-indulgence and its simplistic exploration of machismo and its bum notes and bad scenes, it is engaging, beautiful, and even honest.  Gaspar Noe, the director of Enter the Void, worked with Refn as a consultant on Drive and gets a “thanks” credit here.  I thought a fair amount about Enter the Void after I watched Only God Forgives.  They’re both visually and aurally distinctive and oftentimes quite beautiful.  They both give into cheap Freudian blundering, and their excesses can be quite grating.  Why, then, did I hate Enter the Void but enjoy this?  I’m not really sure, so the best I can come up with is this: Enter the Void is 161 minutes while Only God Forgives is 90 minutes.  So filmmakers, if you’re going to indulge yourselves, please keep it trim.

-M

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