Monday, July 29, 2013

Only God Forgives (*)

Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to 2011's Drive is stuffed with more violence, more neon, more flying limbs and more ruckus. Every year at the Cannes Film Festival, there's a big name film that's served up on a platter and sacrificed ruthlessly by some of the harshest, most severe movie snobs in the world. The premiere of Only God Forgives at the prestigious festival was met with boos, a bunch of walkouts, and a smattering of reviews meant to make Refn go hiding in a cave. It's a ritual that seems gratuitous, and the strongest venom is almost always saved for big name filmmakers (remember how they tore apart Fernando Merielles for Blindness?), but even with all that, the films that they pick on are almost always as bad as they're claimed to be. Only God Forgives may be one of the most correctly heckled films in the history of the festival.

The film is brash and grotesque in its violence, which is fine. After all, Refn is known for mixing a strong visual style with torture porn level violence. Whether it be Drive or Bronson or Valhalla Rising, Refn has always been able to put these unspeakable acts within a context that made it, if not beautiful, fascinating visually. His films are usually captivating, and Drive was him at his peak, sticking in your head like a pop song. Only God Forgives has none of that charm, as if Refn took it for granted and thought the audience would just imply it, and the film's gore piles on and on, wrapped in an arty casing that makes the whole process feel like snuff prestige. Does it matter that all of the chopped off limbs are actually some heavy-handed castration metaphor? I kind of wish Refn was just making slop and not trying to convince us that any of this has substance.

Refn is joining again with his Drive leading man, Ryan Gosling and again, Refn doesn't give him a whole lot to say. I'd guess he has maybe thirty lines in the whole movie, but it's probably even less than that. I feel like Refn fails Gosling here. Gosling isn't doing anything that he didn't do in their previous collaboration, but the icy, wordless stare starts to feel like self-parody. It's as if he's purposely posing for all those 'Hey Girl' internet memes. He plays Julian, a drug dealer living in Bangkok, who leads a kickboxing training school as a cover. Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke) is of the sociopathic variety, and one night, after requesting the sexual services of a fourteen-year-old girl, he settles for raping and killing a sixteen-year-old prostitute. He then more or less allows himself to be bludgeoned to death by the girl's father. We only know Billy for these few (what I imagine to be) hours of his life. Whether or not he had a death wish is never explained, but he complies with being killed pretty amicably.

The film's version of Bangkok is policed by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a lethal swordsman whose only inefficiency is that he tucks his sword in the back of his t-shirt for some reason. Chang rivals Julien for not speaking and staring at things, which adds to the film's overall long-windedness. It's bad enough that Gosling is forced to stare into space - that his antagonist is limited to walking super slowly in between wielding his sword doesn't exactly add excitement. Chang has a pretty strict vision of justice. He leads the prostitute's father to Billy so he can kill him, but then still chops the father's arm off for not correctly protecting his daughter. He's cold and calculating, but he's not beyond standing alone in front of a microphone and a spotlight, performing musical numbers for his fleet. Like Julian, we're forced to infer most of what we see in Chang since he barely says anything, and his gaze is even more impenetrable.

The film's few sparks fly when Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to retrieve Billy's body. Crystal is an acid-tongued monstrosity, spewing filthy language toward anyone she sees, with the exception of her sons, with whom she's ominously sensuous. When Crystal learns that Julian was not willing to avenge the death of the amoral Billy, she becomes enraged and vows to take care of the job herself. Julian, all the while, spends most of his time in strip clubs and whore houses dreaming up nightmares, usually involving his hands and arms, with which he has a maniacal obsession. Crystal does not realize that settling the score will put her at odds with the brutal Chang, and when it becomes clear that she has put herself in his crosshairs, it's only the daydreaming Julian who can protect her.

Scott-Thomas's violent swings of wit are the only thing that saves Only God Forgives from being unwatchable. For a film that seems to relish its total lack of dialogue, to watch a scene where Crystal tears down Julian and his Thai prostitute - calling her a "cum dumpster" - is a rare highlight. But the rest of the movie is so overwrought, like a 90-minute brooding meditation on masculine insecurity. It's as if the whole film, ripe with various limbs flying off, is like a big metaphor for castration and it's pretty uncomfortable to watch these obsessions play themselves out on the screen. But that's not what's really bad about this film, because we've always known eye-covering violence is part of Refn's schtick. But to add to that, Only God Forgives is incredibly boring as well. I can only imagine the amount of post-production time dedicated to the foley sound of footsteps, cause about half the movie the audience is forced to listen to them.

The score by Cliff Martinez is ripe and pulsing, and the work of cinematographer Larry Smith is slick, making the whole film radiate like late-night neon. But these aspects only further emphasize how shallow the film's overall thesis is. Not that Drive is exactly the most sophisticated screenplay, but this is just completely masturbatory. Scott-Thomas is the only member of this cast that seemed to understand that this film works somewhere in between taking itself seriously and embracing its own ridiculous nature. But the film itself doesn't really straddle this line, instead choosing to take itself completely serious, which I feel is its main downfall. Only God Forgives is bloated and preachy. Worse yet, it's preachy without having anything substantial say. "It would suck if you lost your dick" isn't really a strong enough sentiment to hang your hat on.

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