Only God Forgives
directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
released in theaters and on-demand July 19
I had wanted to lay waste to this film, and could not get
out of my head how I was going to describe Only God Forgives, if asked: “A seductively
stylish piece of shit.” Yet the film lingers in my mind, which is mildly troubling, but does makes
me think that Only God Forgives is a film worthy of debate. Chiefly, it’s worth seeing
if only to consider the way it handles the issue of how seductive visuals and musical score tell
lies, ultimately, and whether or not this is such a bad thing.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing club in
Bangkok as a front for his drug-dealing biz; his brother/partner Billy (Tom Burke) beats
a prostitute to death, and is killed under orders from the enigmatic Chang (Vithaya
Pansringarm), a retired policeman who has taken it upon himself to wipe clean the
filthy underworld of whorehouses and kickboxing clubs. The brothers’ gangboss mother
(Kristen Scott Thomas) comes to Bangkok to claim the body and to get bloody revenge enacted.
Julian is “empty,” you see, and seeks redemption,
perhaps even a god to follow; Chang is not just an avenging angel, he is God himself,
in his own mind, at least. This is how director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, the Pusher
trilogy, Valhalla Rising) describes the main characters of his film, and to give them context, Refn references mythology and fairytale, as if by doing so will legitimize the eroticized violence that he so gleefully exploits in this film and several others.
In Refn’s hand-rubbing, wicked glee
he betrays a misanthropic fatalism similar to that of Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall,
Basic Instinct), snuck in with stylish set design and noirish lighting effects,
or simply shoved in our faces. Within this framing of gushing dismemberments and kicks to the groin as re-enactments of ancient ritual comes a lot of disappointingly simplistic pop-psychoanalysis stuff intended to pass for symbolism. (Apparently Billy was Mom’s favorite son, not Julian, and it is hinted that Oedipus, er, Julian killed his father; Mom now demands that Julian be a Man for once and avenge his brother’s death, if not for himself then for her. Et cetera.)
Ryan Gosling is given an unenviable task: Portrait of
a Young Man With the Brains of a Frog. True, he plays a man/boy who’s had his “feelings” or
“humanity” stomped on way back when, but he has a doltish blankness in the face that suggests nothing at all behind the eyes –– you need something behind the eyes to convey numbness or deeply buried pain. As a badass bitch, an American-accented Kristen Scott Thomas smokes a lot of cigarettes and talks very crudely and roughly, real tuff stuff like the real American gangsters would do in Martin Scorcese films. She looks haggard and grim, though I guess her character’s supposed to have done a bit of thinking about her unholy mess of a life that…nah, she probably had career-dumpster concerns rolling ‘round her head.
The most interesting character portrayal is done by
Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm as the avenging angel cop who, as he makes his rounds chopping up criminals or throwing hot grease in their faces or gouging out their eyeballs, becomes more
and more sympathetic by simple virtue of the way he looks, which is just average, possessing neither bulging muscles nor hairline one inch above his eyebrows; he’s not 24 years old, more like mid-50s, and he is unself-conscious in his performance; that he doesn’t seem to be acting at all gives his calm bloodthirst an enjoyably chilling strangeness.
Perhaps Refn instructed Pansringarm to be “inscrutable.” This Danish director’s removed viewpoint on violence and the exoticism of The East
seems insular and dated. Along with the film’s broad assumptions about the values and dreams of the people of Asian cultures, there is an annoying strain of
leftover left-liberal “white aggressors must be punished/put in their place” sort of hogwash at play; Chang stomps the crap outta Julian in a
martial arts-type slug/kick fest; after all, he is The Ancient Master From the East; though older and smaller than Julian, he, with his infinite
patience/wisdom/depth/clarity/etc. can with one small, deft move here [crunch!!] and here [splat!!] bludgeon all comers to kingdom bloody come if he deems
it necessary to do so. In order to balance his presentation of humanity a bit, Refn includes two scenes in which children are spared death by violence,
though they are forced to witness the gruesome deaths of others. Thus: All children are innocent, though you might wonder, at what age do they become
irreversibly corrupted –– and expendable, just another piece of garbage to be tossed into the bin?
One doesn’t criticize a comic book for being a comic
book, yet there must be a way of making a comic-book-styled film that illustrates larger, tragic
themes without fetishizing the violence –– and by illuminating human stereotypes rather
than amplifying them. Refn would do well to revisit the epic manga of
Osamu Tezuka for tips
on the difference between titillation and revelation.
This is the rarest of films that can almost be said
to have been saved by its fantastic music score. Composer Cliff Martinez’s (Refn’s Drive;
Kafka, Traffic) sinister sheets of electronic drone and elephantine percussion interweave with sweet-sad Thai pop songs in a way that pushes film score tonality in all sorts of new directions. It’s Martinez’s best score yet, Oscar-worthy stuff that is in fact the real glue that holds all of the above-mentioned hokum together.
–– John Payne