Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives

ONLY GOD FORGIVES: Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (90 min.)

In 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up for a masterpiece.  Drive is an exercise in tension, a minimalist crime thriller with bursts of action and violence framed by compelling human drama, all with very little dialogue from the story's hero, played by Gosling.  This success is what made Only God Forgives so enticing.  Refn and Gosling back together again, in another minimalist thriller, with more stoicism from its lead.  The table was set for what could possibly turn into some sort of loose trilogy, call it "The Quiet Man Trilogy" if you will.  That was my hope anyway.  Unfortunately, this second pairing of the auteur and actor proves to be, quite frankly, a disastrous miscalculation.  Only God Forgives is stunning, for sure;  it is stunningly inept and stunningly dull, especially considering the talent involved.  Sure it looks great, and sure it sounds wonderful, but what a hollow and idiotic film at the core.

I sat in awe of this film, but in all the wrong ways.  Here is an "arthouse" feature that is all surface material.  All the art lies within the cinematography, lighting, and score.  But any of those primary tropes of what make a film memorable, like characters and plot and detail and dialogue and point, are absent from every moment.  On top of these glaring issues, people act out of character, the violent outbursts are gratuitous and shock for shock's sake, and for some reason every person in the picture moves as if they are operating inside a cocoon of mud or molasses.  I have never seen so many slow turns in all my life.

The film is a simple tale of revenge.  Well, simple to an extent.  Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a mute who runs an underground boxing circuit in Thailand and also deals drugs, although we never see him doing either of these things.  The opening scene has him sitting in the crowd during a boxing match, but not as if he's running anything.  And as for the drug dealing career?  We're just told that.  Julian's brother is Billy, a scumbag who gets his rocks off raping and murdering teenage girls.  At least his motivations can be explained away later in the film, but early on we meet him and see his actions and are just disgusted.  Billy hires a young prostitute and murders her in a hotel room.  This draws the attention of the local police, and a gangster or police detective or someone - it is never fully explained - named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).  Chang sets the daughter's father loose on Billy, and he caves in Billy's head. 

This murder brings Crystal into the film.  Crystal is the mother of Billy and Julian, played by an out of character Kristin Scott Thomas who is really the only bright spot in the film.  Crystal is clearly psychotic, arriving in Thailand to find Julian and basically force him to kill the men responsible for his brother's death.  She is berating to Julian, questioning his manhood and, in a dinner scene in the middle of the film with Julian and his girlfriend (who pops up out of nowhere.  I guess she's a stripper?), comparing the size of his penis with Billy's.  Needless to say Crystal molested Billy and Julian in their younger days, made evident in some not-so-subtle moments.  For some reason - perhaps the control his mother has over him - Julian exacts revenge on those responsible for his worthless brother's death and the plot is off and running.  Or should I say, off and stalling.

Characters spend a great deal of time staring at each other in the film.  They turn, ever so slowly, and gaze, and are met by a gaze themselves.  If I had the patience to watch the film again - and I don't - I would have to say Ryan Gosling's character speaks less than thirty words.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  In Drive, Gosling barely spoke, but there was a deep-seeded passion in his character's gaze.  There was anger, love, determination, and fury boiling beneath the surface of the driver.  Here, he is a blank slate, a robotic, emotionless mute who stares into the darkness and has dull visions and nightmares and is just entirely uninteresting.  And in Drive (I hate to compare these films over and over but it's inevitable) the people surrounding Gosling's character manipulated his silence and pushed his reactions.  Here, none of the supporting players are either fleshed out or interesting.  Sure, Scott Thomas is a lightning bolt as Crystal, but even she can't save things.

Only God Forigves is a disaster, plain and simple.  Some may praise it as a sort of cerebral masterwork of understatement and violence.  They are wrong, that film is Drive.  This film is violent for the sake of shock.  There is a torture scene in the middle of the picture that has no substance, it simply exists just to make the viewer squeamish.  And beyond making me squeamish, it came off as a little too amusing.  I had high hopes for Refn and Gosling re-teaming for Only God Forgives, so perhaps that amplifies my disappointment.  I'm just glad Drive came out before this film, because had it been the other way around I might not have wasted my time seeing Drive.