Friday, August 2, 2013

ONLY GOD FORGIVES Is a Beautiful Mess of a Movie


- Drive was my favorite film of last year. To me, it was a stunning, ultra-cinematic tour de force. In an age in which CGI and digital noise often take the place of true cinematic style, I was blown away by filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn's instantly-iconic movie - which was bursting with stylistic flair and dripping with neo-noir atmosphere. With Drive still fresh in my memory, I was eager to see Refn and star Ryan Gosling's follow-up, ONLY GOD FORGIVES. The trailers promised an eye and ear-melting foray into moody action on par with Drive. However, Only God Forgives is another beast entirely. With this film, Refn has stepped away from conventional narrative, and instead created a piece of hardcore, extreme cinema that mixes exploitation sleaze with David Lynch-esque narrative abstraction. This is a film that deals heavily in symbolism and metaphor, much more concerned with evocative imagery and jaw-dropping, thought-provoking "moments" than with any sort of conventional characters or narrative. This is a movie that is and will remain ultra-divisive. If you have no patience for non-conventional narratives, this film will frustrate. Even those who are open to a film that deals so much in the abstract will likely come away with many questions, and likely some degree of confusion.

In all honesty, I watched ONLY GOD FORGIVES transfixed by the imagery and enthralled by certain scenes - but I walked out of the theater largely baffled by what I had just seen. Only after combing through other reviews and articles did I begin to piece together the intended themes of the film. Ultimately, the film looks incredible, it's got moments that are memorable and shocking and visually stunning. But personally, I just don't know that it all comes together in a way that drives home the themes that Refn was hoping to convey. For some, this will be an all-time cult classic. For me, I see it as a fascinating but flawed misfire in the catalog of one of today's most talented and interesting filmmakers.

What is Only God Forgives about? Let me start with the actual narrative, and I'll get into the larger themes a bit later. On the surface, this is a movie about Ryan Gosling as Julian, a drug-smuggler living in Bangkok with his brother, Billy. Both brothers are rough customers, but Billy is a whole other level of crazy. After getting into an argument with a local pimp, Billy tracks down and kills the pimp's young daughter. Billy then becomes the target of the local police, led by the sword-wielding Chang. Chang - an enigmatic middle-aged man, is a trained fighter and killer. He's a ruthless and sadistic guy, whose bloodlust is counterbalanced by a preternaturally calm demeanor, and a love for singing cheesy karaoke songs. Chang is a mysterious figure throughout the movie - we're told he's a cop, but he also doesn't seem to be just any old cop. He leads squads of policemen, but is never shown wearing a uniform or badge, and seems to operate on his own authority and no one else's. In any case, Chang is big on biblical-style vengeance and wrath, and helps lead the pimp back to Billy, so that the pimp can kill him to avenge his daughter. Billy's death, however, makes Chang and his men a target for Julian. We soon learn though that Julian is less of a leader, and more of an unwitting puppet. The one pulling the strings is Julian's hateful, conniving, devious mother, Crystal - played by a positively demonic Kristin Scott Thomas. Enraged by her favorite son's death (and uncaring that Billy was an evil psychopath), Crystal journeys to Bangkok to help destroy anyone who had a hand in his fall. This puts her and her criminal empire at war with Chang and his men - with Julian, steadily growing tired of being marginalized, spat on, and emasculated, caught in the middle of these two almost godlike forces.

It's funny, because writing that down now, it all seems to make a strange sort of sense. But while actually watching the film, a lot of things - even the most basic info about these characters' identities - seemed unclear to me. Refn gives us a lot of very broad strokes, but not many details. This is a movie that - perhaps intentionally, perhaps not - feels consistently vague and elusive.

A lot of criticism of the movie is likely to be directed at Gosling - or at the least, with Gosling's character and the way he's portrayed. In Drive, Gosling's Driver was stoic and a man of few words, sure. But beneath the surface, there seemed to be a lot going on. And part of the point of the movie was to have Gosling be this larger-than-life, iconic character. Here though,  it's frustrating because the events of the film seem to indicate that Julian is a tortured, pained, deeply disturbed and psychologically-scarred character. But time and time again, Gosling's expression is so blank that we can't read *anything* into it or into his character. I don't blame Gosling, per se, because I think this is what Refn wanted from him. But I also think Refn makes a miscalculation in having Julian be *this* blank of a slate. Because it means that Gosling will do or say things that just come off as completely lacking any context. An example: late in the film, Julian approaches Chang - finally coming face-to-face with his adversary after playing cat-and-mouse for much of the film. You would expect a moment of heated emotion, of brimming tension. But instead, Julian blankly looks at Chang and nonchalantly asks: "wanna fight?" Cut to a long but almost entirely-devoid-of-emotion boxing-match between the two, in which Julian is soundly beaten to a pulp.

I get that Refn is going for a Lynchian vibe here, and I get that he's showing us the movie's events in a dreamlike fashion, and at an emotional and narrative remove. But I also thought about the great Lynch movies like Mulholland Drive, that still managed to elicit genuine emotion and feeling from me, even in spite of their abstract imagery and dream/nightmare-like aesthetics.

To his credit, Refn crafts numerous scenes that are just visually spectacular. His use of color is amazing. His Bangkok feels like hell-on-earth. From the blinking-neon streets to the blood-red interiors of the hotel at which Julian stays - there's no question that Refn is quite simply a visual stylist who's in a league of his own. He also uses music almost as effectively as in Drive, syncing scenes with haunting electro tunes that give the whole movie a feeling of slow-burn dread mixed with pulsing electric danger.

Now, the scene-stealer of the film is hands-down Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal. Whatever criticisms I may have of the film, there's no doubt that every scene she's in simply crackles with energy. Her character is just jaw-droppingly cruel, blunt, and manipulative. One minute she's creating all-kinds-of-wrong sexual tension with her son, the next she's eviscerating him in front of his female companion with acid-tongued insults that no mother should ever speak. I'll go so far as to say that Crystal is one of the most memorable cinematic villains in recent memory - a hellish witch of pure hatred and horribleness, a perverse femme fatale like none we've ever seen before.

Crystal's scenes are almost all barn-burners, but like many of the film's most interesting scenes, they seem to exist in a sort of narrative and thematic vacuum. I've now read numerous interpretations of the film and its characters. Many writers have pointed out the film's clear references to Oedipus Rex, and it's hero-who-screws-his-mom-and-kills-his-dad iconography. Many have also called out Chang as an avenging angel of death, and noticed Crystal's devilish / Satanic similarities. Some have wondered if Gosling's Julian exists in some kind of purgatory-on-earth, where his moral choices and allegiances will end up either damning him to hell, or else sparing him - at least in part - from the angel of death's full wrath. Certainly, the movie has a lot of psycho-sexual imagery, with Julian portrayed as a somewhat impotent figure - his mother has rendered him essentially unable to find comfort or to have normal relations with any other woman. I've even heard that the film is in some ways a metaphor for film itself - that the constant recurring image of characters bound and strapped to a seat represents the way we as film-watchers restrain ourselves in our chair in order to be served up a filmmaker's vision.

All of this is interesting food for thought - but here's the thing: to me, a lot of these ideas just aren't present in the movie in any truly satisfying manner. The attempts at symbolism are clearly there (i.e. all the Oedipal stuff). But what does it mean? What is the *point* of this story? It's not enough just to craft a film where a equals b and x equals y. The filmmaker has got to be relaying a vision that takes that metaphor and symbolism and molds it into some kind of profound statement. I left ONLY GOD FORGIVES feeling about as blankly unmoved as Gosling appears to be throughout the film. I mean, sure, a couple of individual scenes wowed me, but ... what was the ultimate takeaway supposed to be? I think again to Mulholland Drive, which is one of those movies where every scene ultimately - brilliantly - adds up to a stunning, unforgettable statement about dreams and artifice vs. reality, and the world of Hollywood dreams and fakery vs. the world that we actually live in. The fact is: Refn doesn't nail the thematic aspect of this film. He nails the visuals - the colors, the cinematography, the aesthetics ... but I think that attention to aesthetic brilliance may have come at the expense of everything else. With Drive, Refn found the perfect narrative vehicle for his amazing aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities, crafting a simple piece of pulp-fiction that just worked on every level. Here, he really stumbles by getting away from more straightforward characters, narrative, and theme.

The end result is a movie both fascinating and frustrating. Again, I found ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be positively hypnotic in stretches, and Kristin Scott Thomas and her character took the film to another level whenever she was on-screen. Maybe repeat viewings would sway me differently, but to me there was just that nagging, persistent feeling that what Refn was *trying* to do here wasn't being reflected in what was actually on-screen. That's tough, because man, the guy is really aiming to give us bold, original, uncompromising, and challenging films here, and that's something we need more of. Nicholas Winding Refn remains one of the most unique voices in film, and can't wait to see what he does next. But this is one of those films that is sort of a glorious mess - moments of awesome, moments that misfire, and moments that are quite simply WTF-worthy. It's well worth seeing and talking about, even if it doesn't realize the potential of its seemingly lofty ambitions.

My Grade: B

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