Monday, July 29, 2013

‘Only God Forgives’ (2013) directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

They panned It’s a Wonderful Life. They mocked the pretensions of The Shining. They dismissed The Thing as mere 'gore-porn'. Sometimes the critics get it wrong.  Dead wrong. Only God Forgives (currently sitting in the mid-30s on the Tomatometer) will soon join these unfairly maligned classics.  This is a film beautifully and intelligently put together with such an admirable purity of focus that nearly everything else I’ve seen this year pales in comparison.

In analysing the reaction to Drive, Refn found himself in a quandary.  He created an emotionless, borderline mute antihero in ‘Driver’.  Yet Ryan Gosling filled him with such mournful vulnerability, a robot desperately trying to be a “real human being”. A large portion of Drive's success is down to Gosling’s immaculate performance, and audiences can at least be partly forgiven for misreading Driver as admirable and heroic.  Only God Forgives is a challenge to this - testing the audience's sympathies and seeing just how mute, fucked up and unpleasant you can make America’s sweetheart, Ryan Gosling.

Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas)
The film is set in Bangkok, Thailand where two American brothers, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) are small time drug dealing hoods and kickboxing enthusiasts.  We open the film with Billy wandering the streets looking for a fourteen year old prostitute.  He finds one, kills her and is soon violently killed himself.  Wrapped up in these killings is impassive, justice-dealing cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who has a penchant for removing the hands of those who sin in his town. The two brother’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) then arrives slavering for revenge on her son’s killers and the situation spirals out into tit-for-tat bloody retribution.

Refn’s Bangkok is a primary coloured, neon soaked dreamland.  This is one of the most beautiful films of the year, the characters inhabiting perfectly calculated dioramas of electric blue and deep magenta, punctuated with sickly yellow and green.  It’s consciously artificial, every scene composed with an eye for the way the characters move between these areas of light and what these transitions signify.  The high contrast colour creates a heightened sense of fiction, a visual quality so stylised and alien that it actively works against us identifying or sympathising with anybody in the film, instead observing them as we might an ant-farm.

These are uncomfortably long, held takes, either shot with a fixed camera or geometrically mechanical tracking shots.  Throughout the film the camera moves only on the X or Y axis, either horizontally  across the screen or into and out of corridors.  The effect is a dreamy sense of dislocation.  If a wobbly, ‘shaky’ cam is a device to highlight immediacy and reality, then this is the opposite, a drugged out sense of predetermination and portentousness sedating the audience like a Diazepam fuzz.

This artifice numbly alienates in audience.  This is furthered by the almost bizarrely low-key performances from practically every actor.  In 1976 Werner Herzog directed Heart of Glass, a film where the actors were directed whilst under a state of hypnosis, moving ghostily in an unconscious, trance-like state.  The performances here feel much the same – people as props and walking symbols rather than as any kind of simulation of actual human behaviour.

At the centre is Ryan Gosling’s Julian.  It feels like the less Ryan Gosling speaks in a film, the more I enjoy it.  That sounds like faint criticism, but for an actor that seems to spend a hell of lot of time just standing around staring into space and looking dreamy he has an otherworldly gravitas.  He’s elevated doing bugger all on screen into a zen art form.  If you thought he was taciturn in Drive then he’s practically a sphinx in Only God Forgives, speaking a total of 17 lines throughout the entire film.   

Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm)
Though he’s buttoned down and silent that doesn’t mean he’s not acting his socks off. There’s an incredibly awkward dinner scene where his mother is dressing him down in front of his sort-of girlfriend.  She mocks the size of his penis, calls his girlfriend a "cum dumpster" and repeatedly insults his lack of competence and intelligence.  Gosling is passive, yet there’s a tiny moment where the corner of his eye twitches.  It's a tiny, literally blink and you'll miss it detail, but speaks volumes of the storm raging within.  There’s a moment later in the film where you get the tiniest peek at what must be going on in his head: it’s terrifying.

Though Gosling is the star and at first glance the hero, he’s really more of a warped antagonist.  Julian is thoroughly debased over the events of the film – the kind and calm prettyboy Gosling transforming into a hideous frozen, sexually fucked up monster.  He's Frankenstein’s monster though: fucked up by his creator, thrown into a world not suited for him and only able to express himself through violence.

It almost goes without saying that Only God Forgives is a pretty violent film.  Not exceptionally over the top violent, but pretty damn gruesome.  There’s a compelling argument that Refn misjudged the violence in Drive.  When Driver stamps a man’s head into mush it’s supposed to be a shocking reminder of the messiness and horror of what violence really is, an exposure of who Driver really is at his core.  Gosling's ice-cool performance led some to see him as an aspirational figure with the extreme violence as an intrinsic component of his masculinity.   Only God Forgives is a riposte to this reading of Drive, Refn going out of his way to suck every bit of macho glorification out of the carnage on screen.  

Julian is repeatedly defined as someone who communicates primarily through violence, yet isn’t even particularly great at dishing it out.  He’s cowardly, prone to being beaten both verbally and physically.  By the end of the film the consequences of his actions are plain to see over his body, our presumed kick-ass hero character symbolically and voluntarily castrated. The film is Newtonian in its adherence to the principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  This is about the consequences of violent acts, the ‘God’ of the title forgiving only at a gruesome price.  

This Old Testament morality saves the film from being an exploitation flick.  In one of the more disturbing scenes, Refn makes the archly smart move of implicating the audience in the horrors they’re watching.  A character explains to a room full of women that something terrible is about to happen and they should close their eyes until the screaming stops.  The women close their eyes serenely, and remain beatifically untouched by the mutilation happening next to them.  What happens is harrowing, yet we've made a conscious choice to expose ourselves to this.  Why didn't we close our eyes? 

Refn knows his audience. He knows that, like him, we’re thrilled by the pornography of ultraviolence, primally turned on by watching Ryan Gosling pound a man’s skull into fleshy fragments.  The film is so drained of emotion, so sterile and artificial that the chaos of pain and blood becomes that much more horrific.  It’s a direct challenge: here’s your beautiful silent hero, here’s your stylish cinematography, your brooding electro soundtrack – this is everything you asked for.  Why aren’t you enjoying it?

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is violence for violence’s sake, the atrocities in the film arise organically from a primordial ooze of oedipal lust, childish visions masculinity and righteous holy fury. Only God Forgives is an impossibly dense film that will reward multiple viewings. Appropriately given the events of the film, it's taken a vicious beating from critics who booed it at Cannes. Who’ve eviscerated it using meaningless sludgy words like ‘pretentious’ and ‘boring’.  They wouldn’t know a good film if hit them in the face.   The stature of Only God Forgives will inevitably rise and rise as more people cotton on to its brilliance. It’s a outstanding piece of cinema and while I accept it’s not a film for everyone, my god it’s a film for me.

Only God Forgives is on general release from August 2nd

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