Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)
Ah, but does He forgive a movie like this?
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling again team up to put forth another noir-rich effort that skimps on dialogue — only this time it’s one that has left audiences scratching their heads rather than thoughtfully rubbing their chins.
To be fair, it’s difficult for lightning to strike twice in the same spot. Wait, does it? It’s evident Refn was reaching back again for the same kinds of restrictions on your traditional film delivery that made his 2011 effort such a success. It’s also easy to see why he would try to do such a thing again. The lack of dialogue in his recent movies has been intentionally drawing the focus away from what’s being said and more towards what characters and situations are doing, representing. How they are moving, physically, through a story. Refn has hoped that the same approach would yield even greater results if his technique is utilized to an even more extreme degree. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Lightning does not hit the same tree twice, it seems.
Only God Forgives features good-looking Gosling as the mysterious Muay-Thai boxing club owner named Julian, an American ex-pat who’s even more inept at conversing than a nun. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is brutally murdered,
Satan the pair’s mother arrives on the scene in Bangkok, flying in from London to identify whether it is indeed her firstborn’s body or not.
Kristin Scott Thomas is intended to be the film’s most complex character, simultaneously embodying evil as fully as a person can without sprouting horns, while ultimately remaining fiercely defensive of her baby boys. And as generously as I can possibly be in my — nay, any — defense of this film, Thomas delivers quite the performance. She uses her still-living son as bait to try and protect herself from what she knows will be certain, horrible death at the hands of a corrupt vigilante cop, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The rest of the characters are intended to be multi-layered as well; however, most of them end up being painted in the same neon blues and reds as the cinematography is bathed in. If you will, let the red represent motivation (revenge) and the blue the cold, hateful attitudes possessed by each character. Julian is virtually wordless, which proves to be nothing but frustrating and next-to-impossible to identify with, while his enemy, Chang is equally hostile, albeit for slightly different reasons. One might be able to understand his quietness more than Julian’s.
Refn renders some of humanity’s darkest moments of depravity using the most minimalist techniques. There’s barely a script because words mean nothing; actions and non-actions are meant to represent the difference between life and death. Long, unbroken shots of people staring are meant to generate tension. While the silence that permeates each and every neon-lit scene will undoubtedly be excruciating to most viewers, its a method Refn deliberately employs to emphasize a third-party presence to these most grim of proceedings.
Despite all of this sounding like its in defense of his new film, these are the best things that can be said about Only God Forgives. There are concepts Refn is reaching for here that he ultimately misses, sometimes just barely, other times by a mile. Instead of tension being built up throughout the movie’s slowgoing, silent periods a thick air of frustration descends, because we have no reference point to anything in the story. The characters are introduced in a confusing manner — despite the film’s scenes being filmed in chronological order — and a severe lack of anything being stated (in words) it’s oftentimes hard to understand what’s happening in a given scene.
In these instances it seems like it would be highly advantageous to be a Mind Reader.
It’s clear Refn is trying to give audiences a challenge here, not only in the fiercely defiant way he’s going against “traditional” storytelling, but in his usage of some seriously graphic violence. And to me, it’s not clear right now whether this film got booed at Cannes because of this factor or its sheer ambiguity. My guess its a combination of both that makes this film a particularly difficult work of art to ‘like,’ necessarily. If Drive was considered polarizing, Only God Forgives is what that film wanted to be when it grew up. Refn seemingly is one-upping himself in terms of what he thinks modern audiences are willing to accept before completely giving up entirely on the prospect. Unfortunately for him, this ends up occurring far earlier than the ending credits.
This film is plagued by several issues, but the one that I could not get over at all was it’s inability to explain anything. Black eyes, broken hearts and corrupted consciences are one thing (look to things like Taken, Saving Private Ryan, and There Will Be Blood for exemplary moments of all three), and then there’s just obnoxious. Only God Forgives and it’s complex story exists somewhere even outside of the latter, as it insists on being as detestable, abstract and anti-establishment as possible for as long as possible. Quite frankly I grew tired of the gimmick halfway through and I sat through the rest in an effort to be as respectful as I could to both director and actor.
The rest is as forgettable as the story is nonsensical, and moreover, uninspired.
Recommendation: Only God Forgives will not cater to any one’s needs — that’s not its purpose for existing. The actual, true purpose? That answer we never arrive at. This is a product best described as experimental. At its worst? Well, there are some choice words I could implement here, but I really would rather not, because. . . well, you already get the idea. A missed opportunity, for sure. The future will be interesting just for the sake of seeing if these two ever make a film together again.
Rated: R (for really, Ryan Gosling? Really?)
Running Time: 89 mins.
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