Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Byron Gibson, Danai Thiengdham, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Nophand Boonyai, Teerawat Mulvilai, Kovit Wattanakul andWittchuta Watjanarat
Nicolas Winding Refn
Sometimes, a filmmaker after getting huge amount of success commercially with his non-commercial project goes off in a different route to just make anything that he wants without really giving a second thought on what it is that he really wants to do or bring. Nicolas Winding Refn directed the Pusher Trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising but got significant amount of praise and success with his movie "Drive" which earned him best director award at Cannes. If it wasn't for his name, this movie would not have been in-competition at Cannes this year. The most negative reception for a movie in competition went to this one. Several booing and critics on Twitter literally laughing out at its premise, Refn fans were keen to ignore all that and pretend that none of that even happened. Film Criticism/Blogging has taken a different turn now. Its not about expectations anymore because everything that one needs to know about a film, they get to know way before the movie's actual release so expectations are either broken or intensified. When a movie like this gets a terrible reception, shocking as it may be, we still want the critics to be wrong. I personally have developed throughout these years of hopelessly searching through film sites, a sense of rough enactment of how a movie by a certain director featuring certain actors having this and that premise would be like. I read what critics (specially the 10 or 20 i care for) have to say whether its positive or negative and i form a consensus in my mind and its easier that way then to expect something big and in the end get the least of what you were hoping for. For Only God Forgives, i was surprised to see how almost everyone had those exact few points to say about it. A bad reception and lots of theories later, i finally got to watch the movie last night. It turned out that the critics were indeed quite right.
Julian Thompson (Gosling) is an American living in Bangkok, Thailand. He runs a boxing club but its actually a front for a drug smuggling operation. He has a brother as well, Billy Thompson (Burke) who kills an underage prostitute and then surrenders to the Thai police. Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) who is famously known as "Angel of Death" arrives on the scene, informs the girl's father and allows him to beat Billy to death himself. After doing so, Chang talks to him regarding his daughter's profession and how he allowed it all to happen. And for that, Chang cuts off the man's arm. Now Julian's mother, Crystal (Thomas) is in Bangkok for her son's death and wants Julian to find the men who killed him without caring for the fact that he brought this on himself. Julian refuses to do so. This is basically what the plot is, a cycle of revenge is what follows after this. Now in its core, "Only God Forgives" is a revenge movie that reminds one of Gasper Noe. There are scenes of extreme, grotesque brutalities. In between all this, characters just walks or stands still in hallways that are lit up by blue or red neon lights. The violent and sometimes erotic fantasies in a very surreal way will remind you of David Lynch. But please, keep in mind that this movie is nothing like Lynch and what he usually do. His surrealism, his darkly comic explorations of society and the menace that hides underneath, the style and music, they all have an effective use. There are certain stylistic choices, narrative or visual wise that a filmmaker beautifully explores to a point that it all begins to feel similar of their vision and their identity. Refn either wanted to apply those things after being inspired by them into this movie hoping to give it a stylistic or artistic heft, or he was just mocking it all. A thing that is to be noted here is that he dedicates the movie to Alejandro Jodorowsky in the end. His friend and someone he really admires. This is something that reminds me of what Lars Von Trier did with "Antichrist" as he dedicated it to Andrei Tarkovsky while applying few of his stylistic choices in it. Regardless of what both of these movies are about or what they really show, when it comes to a director hoping to achieve nothing significant for himself but just explore his inspirations in a stylistic exercise that would rather look like a mockery in his hand, shouldn't he avoid?
Now i don't really know what Refn was thinking when he decided to do this movie. And when he did, what was it that he really wanted to explore? And what was actually achieved out of all this was exactly what he initially hoped for. I remember hearing something about a man wanting to fight God.... months ago. This is something i read about Refn's next project. But then it was turned into a Thai boxing movie. So what is it that you see in this movie and what you understand from it? First let me clear the fact that i was not expecting this movie to be either Drive or Valhalla Rising. People were blaming critics of hoping to get Drive 2.0 out of this movie so that is why what they saw in it disappointed them. That is certainly not the case because there isn't anything in the movie in the first place. On the other hand, people themselves were promoting the idea that this is something that sounds more like Valhalla Rising. Now that movie earns its stylistic exercise attempt because it achieves so much. With mood, atmosphere, dread, otherworldliness, a sort of assembling of various things but with minimal plot and dialogue with lots of violence. It is not perfect on the whole but its still a better "art" movie than what Only God Forgives was hoping to be. This is not the work of a level-headed filmmaker with a keen sense of style to really get the job done. This is just a pure mess. Drive is where Refn really found his place. The beautiful, astounding and just lyrical (can't believe i used that word here) blend of both style and substance is what was the best thing about it. Driver or other characters perhaps with their minimal dialogues would deliver so much just by staring. We knew their intentions or who they were except for the Driver who was this very mysterious figure. The kinetic energy, sheer power and spellbinding use of lights/camera/music/action was a work of a true artist. Only God Forgives is a silly, dumb, pretentious and just bland disappointing attempt by the freakishly talented guy.
Getting back on the fighting God thing. The character played by Vithaya Pansringarm is known as the Angel of Death as i mentioned. His presence in the movie seems to be like a devil for some and for Julian himself, a strange god-like figure. Not something that he would rather pray to but a bigger/menacing force that he would rather fight and get it over with then to just give up, something he can't do with his mom because she is "mommy" as he calls her. Pansringarm really looks scary in his role, the way he slices the hands or legs or chests for that matter is brutal. In one scene, he chops off many other things as well. He in not your usual cop, he seems to be taking things in his own hands by giving his victims choices like an authoritative figure or like a god. When Julian finds out about him, he is strangely mesmerized by this figure. He haven't met this so called Angel of Death until he do but for now, he is someone who haunts him in his fantasies/in his dreams/in his thoughts. Its an obsession that seems more like his fear of him. These things, this premise sounds so freaking good on paper right? Well it isn't so in the movie. I mean you pick things like these, you see that they are there to some extent but they aren't fully explored or jelled together. The other important figure in his life, someone who have had that presence on Julian his entire life is of course his mommy dearest. Talk about the "god-mother of the century". Kristin Scott Thomas with the limited of what really is there in the movie, manages to act and contribute more to the movie than anyone or anything else. The depravity, her slutiness (excuse my language) or her sudden bursts into anger or perversion is superb. Its a worthy performance, not a great one, in an otherwise not so worthy film. Crystal and Julian shares a very weird and questionable relation. The revelations regarding what Julian thinks of his mother, who she is, what she and his brother had together which we learn later on in the movie, all that aside. Crystal grabs her son and then feels his ass. She feels his arms. She talks about the length of Julian's and Billy's penises. Of course, all of these things points out towards an incestuous and troubled past. Julian's violent and erotic fantasies involving prostitutes pleasuring themselves, the Angel of Death, also features his mother. In a sequence, we see the prostitute taking his hand in hers and then pleasuring herself with it. Only God Forgives has some serious vagina-problems. Julian just dreams of wanting to get back inside his mother's womb.
Talking about the man himself, Ryan Gosling. Well here he just looks like a walking cliche of himself, of what he was in the previous Refn movie. His performance, which was a stunning performance albeit the lack of a typical one in Drive was still breathtaking because it was a glorious attempt and well thought premise. Here, he is blank, the characters are blank, their motivations are blank, their development is nil and their very being is a question mark. None of the characters in the movie behave like the seedy characters that are there in these kind of movies. They aren't even people, rather than cardboard cut-outs. The way they talk to each other are not the talks. What they get into, what they end up with, what they explore in-between are not compelling or dramatic situations. What kind of a world this really is? A neon-hell where the only way to really escape the "cyclic notion of violence and revenge" is to die? Overwhelming lack of humanity or some kind of development and attachment results in situations that lacks the kind of sheer shock or intensity that was there in Drive. The scenes of violence here lacks the shock or affecting value that there always is. Whether this is a religious parable or a neon-hell that is this world or people with vagina issues or with body-slashing fetish, Refn fails massively to give a heft to these ideas and instead makes a big mess out of all these things caught up within themselves with nowhere to go and nothing worthwhile to do. Cliff Martinez's score for the movie is good but is there to mere increase the intensity of the situations or rather make it all sound good because its so dull otherwise. The cinematography is good, the way camera moves slowly and the way the difference in its composition can be seen in the moments of neon-lit darkness or the ones that take place in daylight are admirable. There are many moments of everything bathed in red or blue lights or beautiful wallpapers in hallways to give a very surreal look. It all looks very good no doubt. Refn's visuals here are just stunning to look at but they hardly contribute to anything. This is not Valhalla Rising, in fact that movie looks like a Tarkovsky feature in front of this.
A very empty and unnecessary stylistic exercise with striking visuals that are not enough to support the movie with its dull, boring and lack of a decent plot setup. Look at it from any angle, even as a brutal crime saga, it fails to get it going. It comes off as silly and laughable in the end. A bad wannabe art-house feature. Even the cop-karaoke didn't felt arty to me (sigh!). Refn get a hold of yourself please!