Thursday, July 25, 2013


Only God Forgives is the kind of movie you get when a talented group of people goes off in completely the wrong direction following hypothetically interesting aesthetic impulses down a dead end street to emptiness. It’s not that this is merely a bad film. It’s such a colossally and profoundly bankrupt and phony production that I couldn’t even sit back and appreciate the self-serious kitsch of it all. This is film that lingers equally on graphic bloody violence and straight-faced karaoke ballads in a repulsively exoticised Bangkok landscape that is made to look something like a velvet painting under a red blacklight. That director Nicolas Winding Refn is a great composer of images, but quite terrible at making them add up to anything meaningful, is the only thing keeping the film merely disappointing instead of outright maddening, although it’s without a doubt the longest 90 minutes I’ve sat through in a long time.

The film muddles along through a story about an American drifting through Thailand's criminal underworld. As played by Ryan Gosling, who appeared in Refn’s previous film, the far more successful arty thriller Drive, the man is an inscrutable enigma. The role calls only for Gosling to move imperceptibly between two expressions: blank stares and hollow stares. Early in the film’s runtime, his brother (Tom Burke) kills an underage prostitute. The girl’s father, in turn, kills Gosling’s brother. It’s a mess. A policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows this retribution to happen, but punishes the dead girl’s father by ritualistically slicing off his hand. News of the ordeal reaches Gosling and he’s understandably upset. So it becomes a revenge drama, except only in the most turgid, circuitous sense. Through it all, few words are spoken, and even fewer actions are taken. It’s as if Refn heard the mainstream audience complaints about the slow, meditative passages of Drive and figured his mistake was including all those exciting parts around them.

Refn’s a talented designer of striking images, here with assistance from cinematographer Larry Smith, but he exerts little effort in letting them add up. It’s a film in which every person and event is so devoid of emotion, it’s practically comatose. Here, whole characters are nothing more than signifiers, monstrous constructs that fly in fully ensconced as symbols first, people later, if ever. I’m thinking mostly of the great Kristin Scott Thomas who shows up as Gosling’s mother, a great stormy performance in a film of artfully calm chaos. She’s a tormentor and a destructive presence in her son’s life, quick with a vulgar insult and, as a criminal herself, the inescapable mood of the movie has her on an inevitable journey to a nasty end. When it arrives, it’s nastier than you’d guess. Nastier still is the sense of embarrassment that grows watching such a game performance receive absolutely no support from the rest of the cast, let alone the film around them.

But to say Only God Forgives is a film of narrative is a disservice. This is a film of mood, a heavy machismo that slides along carrying slickly packaged violence and dread. Accompanied by a throbbing score by Cliff Martinez, the camera slowly pushes in on ornate panels and decorative designs, the color red washing over the frame in oppressive consistency. Hands, blades, and blood are repeated visual motifs. If only the design were more than design. This is a film enamored with concepts of Freudian anxiety, honor, and criminality, but refuses to bring them into a coherent or engaging film on any level. It’s a failure as narrative only because it never intends to rise to that level. Its true failure is as cinema, mistaking sadism for entertainment and posturing for profundity. It’s telling that Refn includes repeated shots of empty interiors throughout the film, a no-doubt unintentional symbol of the film’s true, repetitively vacant nature.

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