Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives

Grade: 24/D+

Nicolas Winding Refn’s work often threatens to go off the rails, and unfortunately it does in Only God Forgives. His first film after his 2011 masterpiece Drive (not to mention a run of strong films including Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the latter two Pusher films) shares the brutality of his earlier work, but little of power. It’s as well made and gorgeous-looking as any of his films, but it’s strangely empty. It features a number of striking sequences, but none of them cohere to form anything as transcendent as the best of his work. It’s sure to be the year’s most fascinating failure.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a kickboxing club in Bangkok as a front for his family’s drug business. When his older brother Billy is executed for the murder and rape of a 16-year-old girl, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) comes from America, demanding revenge. Julian is aware of his brother’s sins, however, and refuses, forcing Crystal to take action. Meanwhile, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police officer known as the “Angel of Vengeance” and a man with a role in Billy’s death, takes his sick brand of justice (arm dismemberment by sword) to Crystal’s men, and Julian, whose relationship with his mother is not altogether very healthy, is moved to act.

At the very least, Refn should be applauded for not going further into the mainstream after the modest success of Drive. If anything, he’s gone as far out on a (severed) limb as possible, cranking up the violence to levels that might make one agree with his knowing, self-ascribed “pornographer” label. Only God Forgives is nightmarish, all right, with its artful, deep red lighting, its relentless brutality, and it’s almost total lack of humanity at its core.

It’s admirable, to a large extent, and certainly artful, but it’s also extraordinarily difficult to connect to. It’s almost as if he took elements of all of his previous works- the relentless foreboding of Valhalla Rising, the excessiveness of Bronson, the minimalism of Drive- and cranked them up to the level of portentous self-parody. Beautifully made as much of it is, it’s hard not to go “oh, come on” at some of the sadism on display here (wait for the ice pick). Refn tries to humanize Chang a bit with the character’s love of karaoke pop songs and his relationship with his daughter, but the latter is fairly rote, and the former plays like a hollow echo of the memorable musical interludes in Drive. And while all of Refn’s films are vicious, the violence has never before seemed so schematic.

It might be a bit easier to swallow if there was much of anyone to care about, even as a point of morbid fascination as in Bronson or Valhalla Rising. But Refn’s minimal use of dialogue feels more like a crutch than a boon here, and the sparseness of character that benefited One-Eye in Valhalla and Driver in Drive mostly seems vague here. Gosling is often fascinating when he’s asked to do very little, but he’s basically been asked to play the embodiment of numb, thoughtless violence here. He’s OK at what he’s doing, but why is it being done? It completely negates the vibrant energy that’s at the center of most of Refn’s films.

 To make matters worse, the Angel/God (Chang) vs. Devil (Crystal) dichotomy, not to mention the Oedipus complex at the film’s center, is utterly moronic, and any humor Refn might have intended is negated by the overwhelming heaviness of the film’s tone. Only God Forgives isn’t without its virtues- it looks gorgeous, Thomas is fun as a total gorgon of a mother, and Clint Mansell’s provides another wonderful electronic score- but it’s hard for them to shine brightly amidst all the stupidity. This is one of the worst films of the year, though I’m strangely glad I saw it. Much as I feel this thing whiffed, it had the mark of someone swinging for the fences. Let’s just hope Refn got that nonsense out of his system.

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