Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Ahoy there, strangers. For the first time, I'm not actually doing my reviews in consecutive order, as I have yet to get watching Maniac yet, so essentially I'm doing the first two paragraphs for this and Blackfish, to get myself up to speed. I have two days off work, so I'm just planning on chilling out around the house, as opposed to my original plan of seeing Grown Ups 2: I'm a masochist, but I'm not that far down the line, there's always next week to put off that monstrosity. Normally, I withhold my opines before seeing a movie, and maybe it'll surprise me (cough!), but I can't imagine it being anything more than completely vomit-inducing bilge. So, for more movie reviews and pre-emptive strikes at Adam Sandler's second holiday video to be theatrically released, keep your eyes posted!
Today's movie is a rather well-anticipated released, Only God Forgives, the first film by Nicolas Winding Refn since 2011's Drive, a masterwork that garnered Refn the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival and risen in it's relatively short lifespan to the status of a contemporary classic. At that same Festival in 2013, Only God Forgives was met by both a standing ovation and a collection of boos, and the critical reception indicates a similar level of polarisation. On the one hand, you have a vocal group, including Peter Bradshaw, who gave it a five-star rating in his Guardian review, and another equally as loud, who argue that the film is mere style over substance. Taking my own perspective, I'll just briefly sum up my own history with Nic Winding Refn. The first of his films I saw was Bronson, a movie which at first I fell for over Tom Hardy's magnetic lead performance (he won the Best Lead Actor award for my good self for this role), but in hindsight it is also so much a Refn film. Then he made Valhalla Rising, a movie that is completely left of field, featuring a subtly great performance by Mads Mikkelsen, a film not without it's flaws but nevertheless mesmerising, which made me wake up to this artistic talent. 2011's Drive was the peak of an upward progression in Refn's artistry, the summation of everything he'd been going towards in his career, although, sometimes I feel the best is yet to come for Refn. In short, with that context at hand, I went into Only God Forgives with a bit of foreknowledge that, although he made the more accessible, pick up and play films Bronson and Drive, he'd looked long into the abyss with Valhalla Rising, so perhaps my expectations weren't that, with Ryan Gosling back in the van, we'd be getting Drive Mk. 2. Brief plot synopsis, Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate living in Bangkok, whose boxing club serves as a front for a drug smuggling operation. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed following his rape and murder of an underage prostitute, their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), after Julian fails to follow it up, sets out for revenge on her son's killer. However, things are a bit more complicated than they seem, with the involvement of police officer Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known in the underworld as The Angel Of Vengeance.
Going into Only God Forgives, it is inevitable for audiences to think of Gosling and Refn's previous collaboration, but thankfully, this is a very different beast that doesn't simply retread the same tried and tested waters. Dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Refn goes perhaps even further down the rabbit hole than Valhalla Rising in terms of his attempting to explore the language of cinema. This is an abstract piece of emotional experience that is hard to define, and the film is awash with atmosphere. Furthermore, as with much of his work, Refn injects the film with a high level of tension, so that when the silent mood is broken, the violence has meaning and packs a fierce punch. Larry Smith's cinematography soaks the picture in tones the likes of which have never been seen on the screen. His use of lighting and the movement of the actors in shadows in a unique attribute to this picture. Since the beginning of cinema, it has often been taken for granted that just about everything onscreen must be visible, a ubiquitous rule that certainly needs to be overwritten. The sheer beauty of the photography, of an artistic quality that could be hanging in a gallery, is like a neo-noir digital equivalent of, say, Gregg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, or that of Arthur Edeson in Casablanca. Those were two black-and-white films that explored the use of shadow, tones and lighting to tell a story in a new way, and Smith's work with the Arri Alexa is of the same vein. Another interesting aspect of the film is the editing and the use of montage to speak to the audience. The film is largely silent, Ryan Gosling only speaking twenty-two lines in the entire film (not far off Arnie's sixteen lines in The Terminator), and thus Matthew Newman does some new things with the old tricks of montage editing. Despite the Kuleshovian effects that this has on the viewer being nothing, Refn has something to say with these images, and Newman mixing the colours, if you will, gets across the thematic content of the film. As with other films of his, there is something potently erotic, almost masturbatory, about the portrayal of violence and this sense of uber-masculinity, but there is also a lot of stuff going on in there about mythologisation and familial relationships, including an (almost) Abel and Cain fraternal interaction, an absence of a legitimate father figure and the presence of an overbearingly powerful mother, which brings about a pervading Oedipal tone to the whole picture. Speaking of mothers, in terms of the acting Kristen Scott Thomas steals the show as Crystal. Right from her first scene, when she abuses a well-meaning hotel receptionist in front of her manager, you know this is one peroxide-blonde you don't want to mess with. Stern, abrupt and to the point, Scott Thomas' delivery of her lines is done in such a vicious, snappy pace that you almost feel like you're being lashed, and that despite being terribly insulting to her son, saying his dead brother was better than he, when she demands "Now, kiss you mother!," you better believe by God you'd do it yourself if Gosling's Julian didn't. Also, Vithaya Pansringarm is great as the Angel Of Vengeance. I don't know much about the guy's history (he doesn't even have a Wikipedia profile), and the only major movie he was in that I have seen was as a minister in the terrible Hangover Part II, but he has been perfectly cast in this part. His face for starters is reminiscent of those Buddisht figures that are the subject of much idolatry, and there is a question to be asked as to whether or not he is the eponymous 'God' of the title. Giving the film another layer, Cliff Martinez' score is full of textured ambience that not only give the film a forward momentum and help tell the onscreen story, but there is also a sort-of subconscious suggestiveness at work behind the pulsating synths: like the film as a whole, which is a tonal poem, there is something else a lot more subtle going on behind the works. Although by no means perfect, Nic Winding Refn's wholly unique exploration of the potential of cinematic language is a big step down the rabbit hole of artistry.
Now, for all those things that I admire about the film (I do think that it is a unique and artistically daring attempt at transgressing the boundaries of cinematic language), there are a number of issues that deny it from being a great movie. I will watch it again, and perhaps I'll reassess it as a whole (Lord knows, I used to think Children Of Men was boring, now I think it's a masterpiece), but I still feel that despite all the new and interesting things going on, it is fundamentally flawed, and that is down to Nic Winding Refn's script. Ryan Gosling, although being a fine actor graced with a face you could look at all day, unfortunately doesn't much to do, his character being a purely existentialist cypher. I don't mean to wag the dog, but if you take his previous film Drive, which had a similarly afflicted existential protagonist that looked long and hard into the abyss, there was something there above and beyond the cypher, whereas here Gosling's Julian has the paradoxically clashing elements where he could be everyone and at the same time absolutely no one. He lacks the connection to the audience necessary to drive (terrible pun intended) the film upwards into greater heights. Also, although I referred to it as a tonal poem, it does not contain enough poetic complexity. If you take, for instance, James Clarence Mangan's Siberia, what you have in eight sections of five lines includes apocalyptic religiosity, absurdism, life and death, and Siberia as an overarching metaphor for the desolate wasteland created by Ireland's Great Famine. I know I'm talking creme de la creme in terms of poetry, but frankly Only God Forgives, though very good, is by no means wallowing "In Siberia's wastes," if you get what I mean.
Though I do have certain reservations about the film as whole, being nowhere near as rich and textured and complex as it could have been, Only God Forgives is a unique film experience. I've said everything already, so I won't repeat myself, but simply relate a story of the screening I attended at the Queens Film Theatre. In front of me, a couple about twenty-five/thirty minutes into the film got up and left, and I'm sure there were probably more. Also, from about half-way in, there were smattering of people sniggering, not with genuine laughter but that awkward pompous sound that's somewhere in between a sigh and a guffaw. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but these are probably the same people that booed Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura at the Cannes Film Festival. Although I don't feel that this will be retrospectively considered up there among the greats with that film, it will I feel, due to Nic Winding Refn (the great contemporary existentialist filmmaker), be reassessed for its bold, daring approach to challenging to the conventions of cinematic language and storytelling.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.6/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Relaxed (a few days off before Creamfields is always welcome!)