Saturday, July 20, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: ONLY GOD FORGIVES Is (Naturally) Unforgivingly Dark, Vicious and Hauntingly Brilliant

If Nicolas Winding Refn's previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, Drive, was a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about escaping an unwanted life, then their spiritual sequel, Only God Forgives, is a Grimm brothers fable about the slim differences between justice and revenge and the inescapable consequences of both. It's difficult to talk about Only God Forgives without discussing Drive and the qualities that seem purposefully mirrored. Where Drive had a pulpy heroism, Only God Forgives is rife with bleak nihilism. There are no heroes to be found in this film. Where Drive had a dreamy hypnotism, Only God Forgives has nightmarish menace pulsing beneath each frame. It's a calculated response to a film many people seemed to enjoy (for mostly surface reasons) and that's probably why a lot of people are intensely disliking this film. It's unfortunate, because Only God Forgives is just as good as Drive and in a few ways, it's better.

The story is certainly as simple as its predecessor: Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug-smuggler who runs a boxing club in Thailand, finds out that his brother is killed for murdering an underage girl. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) urges him to find the man responsible, a high ranking police official named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), and kill him for revenge. The plot, like in Drive, is really only in place so that Refn can explore the complications of his characters in the most visual ways possible. If you're coming to Only God Forgives just to see more of the masterful aesthetic Refn has been crafting over his career, you won't be disappointed. The lighting alone is award-worthy, drenching every scene with the appropriate mood and atmosphere. And the one color that seems to encapsulate the mood and atmosphere of Only God Forgives is red. Anger, lust and blood certainly factor heavily throughout the course of the picture. If Drive's color palette sought to evoke warmth, then Only God Forgives injects a coldness straight into your veins. Nothing feels inviting or appealing, and that's another element that is probably turning people away.

Even the performances seem purposefully abrasive. Ryan Gosling gets even less dialogue than as the Driver, and his pretty boy visage is ravaged and bloodied during the film's final act. His character isn't given any likable traits, and the more we learn about him, the darker and more disturbed he seems to be. It's a direct contrast to the mythic and romantic hero of the Driver, and plenty of viewers will be turned off by him. I found him intensely more interesting and introspective here, forced out of fitting into an archetype and portraying a far more nebulous character. People are probably upset as well because Gosling isn't actually the main character. Vithaya Pansringarm's Chang is the real focal point of the story: a seemingly robotic dispenser of brutal justice that is actually just as simple and human as the rest of us. When he isn't enacting the law via his sword, he's shown to have a peaceful family life at home with his wife and daughter. He plays with his daughter and her stuffed animals and asks what she had to eat that day. He also sings at a club in front of his fellow officers and patrons, and the songs seem somewhat mournful (they are in a foreign language, so I have no idea what the lyrics are, but that was the emotion I felt). He deals violent retribution to all guilty parties, even those with a justification for their vicious revenge. There's a sense of honor to him, but certainly not a heroic one. His methods and doings are ugly, but they at least seem fair. It's a fascinating look at the utilization of violence for the overall "good." But, the performance to savor is Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian's mother. A villainous Lady MacBeth if there ever was one, Thomas gets all the horrific lines and wields them just as deftly as Chang does his sword. The overtly sexual nature of her relationship with her sons is yet another factor that is going to drive away lots of people, but it only adds more thought-provoking layers to her character. She's introduced as everything disgustingly wrong with Western culture: she's a Barbie doll demon who is rude, aggressive and fiendishly manipulative. Her desire for revenge never involves her getting her hands dirty, making her even more detestable for asking her son (and others) to do the job for her. She's utterly unlikable in every way, but like the best villains, she's deplorably watchable. If anyone in the film deserves special recognition, it's her.

Along with a cast of characters that range from unapproachable to downright vile, the pacing of Only God Forgives adds another bit of alienation for its audience. It's not so much a slow burn as it is a steadily controlled fire. It never rages or gets out of hand, but rather calmly and scarily executes itself over the course of its running time. Drive had a very similar pace, but that film's dreamy demeanor helped it to be more accessible. The ever-present dread that is woven throughout Only God Forgives can make the same pace feel unbearably cruel. Even if the pacing is an issue with you (it wasn't for me), it's hard to deny that it's purposefully well-crafted.

Refn's love of utilizing music to set the scene shines through in a different way this time. The same synth tones are there, but they are utilized to compliment the picture's gritty sensibilities. Drive's music lent the movie a sort of video game aura, whereas Only God Forgives has a score that gives things a real "back alley" feel. It's just another piece of a puzzle that seems tailor-made to challenge and incite its audience, and I love it.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I loved Only God Forgives as a whole, while I really, really liked Drive. The legend-like feel that Drive had was wonderful, but there's something more invasive and real underneath the skin of Only God Forgives. It's willingness to plumb some truly dark depths and not shy away is invigorating to me. The gorgeously Kubrickian visuals mesh with a Tarantino-like attitude of unashamed perversity. I can understand why a lot of people won't like this film, and that's fine. It is a difficult task to stare a nightmare in its eyes, but when you do, you'll find the soul behind those eyes can speak volumes about you. And it's hard to forgive the monster you are capable of being.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't like the film, but there are basic errors in your plot synopsis. Chang is not a policeman (he conspicuously WALKS to and from each crime scene, and is never given a ride in the police cars) and the policeman who superficially seems to be his righthand man is explicitly a a crime scene investigation, you wouldn't expect someone higher ranking...Chang is a hired killer, nothing more...and SPOILER...the guy who is the boxing statue