Nicholas Winding Refn returns to the screen with a Thailand thriller crafted from the same DNA as his recent film, Drive, including moody atmosphere, sparse dialog, and of course Ryan Gosling. Many fans of Drive looked forward to this, myself included, but with harsh critical thrashing and a non-existent release how could it possibly hold up to the same caliber? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, but that’s okay.
This movie is an odd bird that makes a whole lot more sense when you realize it’s dedicated to Refn’s mentor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, of The Holy Mountain and El Topo fame. Once that part clicks the whole film stops being a slightly confusing romp through a cinematic LSD trip and more like an homage to Jodorowsky’s confusing and trippy arthouse flicks steeped in symbolism. Many critics have accused this of being artistically pretentious but I think they’re viewing this movie in the wrong context: instead of looking at this like a high production value student film they should be viewing it as a director exploring the edges of his range. It’s like my review for Beyond the Black Rainbow: the execution may be flawed but the concept and lasting effect is enough to give the film credit. Even if I ended this with a simple “Hmm, that’s different” the fact remains that I was thinking about the movie more and more the day after. In fact, I had a stronger recollection of the scenes and visuals than I did with Pacific Rim (and I love big robots). Then again that could be simply because the scenes were so static they actually burned into my retina.
The Eye Candy
Speaking of burning retinas, your rods and cones will be tested to their limit thanks to the inky shadows cut with bright neon reds and blues. The whole movie highlights the sleazy night club life of Thailand’s slums which somehow separates itself from mimicking a set from Blade Runner. Refn’s cinematic eye, augmented by Larry Smith who also worked with Refn on Bronson, is shown possibly at its strongest in this film which is why most critics concedes the cinematography is the saving grace of this movie. While it’s a style that’s familiar with Refn’s past films, it’s also a style that is in harmony with the Asian films this draws influence from. Your eyeballs feel greasy and you’re curious if you just caught some kind of disease just by looking at the wonderfully grime-stained frames.
It’s not just the color palette though, it’s the composition itself. Like many modern Asian films, the camera steps back and takes a voyeuristic view in wide shots where everything is set on a very flat angle. Many shots feature characters dead center among a carefully planned set design which frames them and help create the mood. In any other film this would be seen as primitive and simple but somehow it works here. It shows you don’t have to use a bunch of extreme close ups and dutch angles to make a shot interesting.
I hate saying this because I hate it when people use directors in this way but it’s almost Kubrick in its design. Feel free to dress me down for saying that, but I really feel Kubrick would have shot the film in a similar way.
Sex and Violence
This film is steeped in intense violence and raw sexuality. The weird part is that the graphic portrayal of both elements is restrained. It’s not even the case this movie uses subtext or implications all that much, there’s just this feeling of primal lust and brutal savagery in scenes that are otherwise just two people talking. This sense is created by incorporating very strange but somewhat refreshing relationships into the film, from Gosling’s bondage based relationship with an entertainer to the reverse-Oedipus complex exhibited by his mother. The cinematography plays a big role in this as well. It’s as if someone passed a script to a 1970’s pornographer and asked him to make an arthouse film. Most of the scenes feel like they should have accompanying saxophone music to get you into the mood.
Then you have the same uniquely brutal yet rare violence that Drive featured which helped give you a sense that the characters in this movie are very, very dangerous. There’s an intensity built up because you know the potential of how far characters are willing to go, but when a violent scene finally occurs it’s usually a snap in time. Don’t worry though, it’ll make you cringe in sympathetic pain.
A Group of Unrelatable People
I’m going to come out and say that just because a character is an asshole and you don’t like him does not make him a bad character. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in criticizing a film. It’s one thing if a character is unbelievable, which these characters ride the very fine line of being, but don’t dismiss a film because you didn’t feel bad or agreed with a character. Lots of movies have characters like this that we still adore, some we love because they’re jerks. That all said, no one in this film is going to win any awards for being a good Samaritan.
Ryan Gosling plays as Julian, a drug dealer who is seeking out who murdered his brother. At least this is what the film summary says on many websites. It’s pretty misleading, because you almost never see Julian engage in any drug dealing and he solves the murder mystery pretty quickly and washes his hands of it. The drug dealing, really, is putty to cover the plot hole of why this white family led by a otherwise inexplicably powerful kingpin mother has any business in Thailand anyway. Instead Gosling is playing a character who is wrestling with deep emotional scars of his past which leaves him feeling that his own hands are not a part of his body. You’ve got to read into that last part because the actual acting was the same we saw in Drive: static face brooding slightly until he says a line. It’s okay though, I didn’t think his character needed to be anything more than an inanimate line deliverer because it made the unusual moments when he was emotional or passionate shock that much more.
Vithaya Pansringarm (try saying that three times fast) plays opposite of Gosling in the role of a ruthless, loose-with-the-law police officer who has a passion for slicing folk up with a sword and cutting the air with karaoke. “Chang”, as he’s called, is a classic hard-boiled character that’s very popular in Asian cinema. He has a unique brand of justice and he really doesn’t care what it takes to dish it out or the consequences of his actions. He’s very cold and emotionless, almost never creasing the muscles around his brow and lips through the entire film. Reminded me a lot of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, a man of twisted conviction and inevitable follow-through.
Kristin Thomas (The English Patient) plays as Julian’s mother, Crystal, who is the major drive of the plot as she swings her weight around to muck things up. A lot of viewers and critics alike hated her character but I loved it. She was heartless, blunt, and dropped several lines throughout the movie that completely take you by surprise. She’s powerful and she knows it, and it’s shown by the way she treats those around her, how she solves problems, even how she holds her cigarette that she’s never far from. The other aspect of her character that I feel is different is her attempts of sexual control that are never explicitly stated but you know something was going on between her and her sons. It’s vague enough that you can interpret it how you like, but I have a feeling Julian’s shame for his hands and strange sex life is a symptom of his relationship to his mother.
The last major character to mention is the drop-dead gorgeous Yayaying Rhatha Phongam who plays as night club entertainer Mai. Her acting career is still budding and this movie didn’t exactly give her much development to work with but she’s still nonetheless an interesting character (and I’m not just saying that because of how she’s dressed). It’s hard to really decipher what her relationship is with Julian, exactly. It’s clear that they are not an actual couple but rather a business relationship but it’s unclear how much she feels for him, if anything. She’s an unfortunate character who is stuck in the middle of a big mess, having to deal with the emotionally damaged Julian and his impolite mother.
A Niche Audience
I liked this movie, even if I didn’t like it as much as Drive. My feelings are pretty much the same as for Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea: it’s not nearly as good as his taut and amazing entry film The Chaser but I felt he explored a new world and took some big risks in order to give us something new. Exact same here for Only God Forgives. Refn took the success of Drive and took it to the next level in his artistic vision. This means that most folk aren’t going to like it, especially since Drive has a very polarized fanbase, but it’s important for Refn to be a bit selfish and not care about what the audience wants and instead show us what he wants to make. I can really only recommend this film to people who really enjoyed Drive and/or Bronson and just want to see more of Refn’s slick style or people who love Asian thrillers. The film is guilty of enjoying it’s own shots too much and I wouldn’t be shocked if the script was a mere 20 pages. It’s liquor for your eyes and cold medication for your brain but, in the end, I’m fine with that. If anything it gave me the same appreciation for Refn as I have with Cosmatos and his film Beyond the Black Rainbow. It may not be perfect or even a step forward but I’m still very excited to see the next project in store for us.