Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

(Denmark/France - 2013)

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.  Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Byron Gibson, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kovit Wattanikul. (R, 87 mins)

Anyone who expressed concern that polarizing Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn would go mainstream after his 2011 American debut DRIVE can rest easy.  His latest, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, might reunite him with DRIVE star Ryan Gosling, but it sprints pretty far away from commercial cinema, probably ending up as more of a companion piece of sorts to Refn's VALHALLA RISING (2010).  ONLY GOD FORGIVES got some pretty toxic word of mouth after being booed at Cannes, and most American critics have expressed vehemently negative opinions of it (for what it's worth, Rex Reed declared it "one of the five worst movies ever made," which, given Reed's sunken rep, should actually be used as a positive blurb right out of the David Lynch playbook).  This is unquestionably a divisive film that isn't meant for multiplex consumption.  If you're looking for narrative, plot, a fast pace, or DRIVE II or some kind of accessible Gosling vehicle, then you'd best steer clear.  It's decidedly not for everyone, but if you approach it with an open mind and the idea that it's a Nicolas Winding Refn and if you give it time to settle in and allow yourself to get accustomed to its style and its rhythms--and if you have a strong stomach--you may find ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be a richly rewarding experience.

Chances are there won't be another 2013 film that looks better than this one.  Refn dedicates it to still-with-us EL TOPO and SANTA SANGRE director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and gives an additional shout-out to IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID director Gaspar Noe, and while there's indisputable nods to both filmmakers, ONLY GOD FORGIVES struck me as Refn's Kubrick film.  The cinematographer is Larry Smith, and this isn't the first time he's been recruited by Refn--he also shot 2003's misunderstood FEAR X and 2009's BRONSON.  Smith is a former Kubrick associate, having shot his last film, 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT, in addition to working on the camera crew for BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980).  FEAR X had elements of Refn mimicking Kubrick's cold and detached style, but Refn and Smith take that even further with ONLY GOD FORGIVES.  I'm not one to throw around terms like mise-en-scene very often, but the tracking shots, intricate compositions, the almost obsessive detail, the visual and thematic dualities, and the way that everything in every shot is positioned where it is for a specific reason is vital to a proper experience of this film.  If you're just looking for the plot, you're going to miss what Refn is doing here.  It's a character study told in the most visual of means--through the framing, the colors, the camera movement, the editing, the timing, the cutting.  He utilizes a lot of Kubrickian editing techniques that recall the legendary bone-to-space station cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).  From a story standpoint, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a fairly standard B-movie revenge/redemption saga. It doesn't break any new ground in that department.  But it's Refn's crowning achievement thus far in terms of purely visual, symbolic, cinematic storytelling.

In Bangkok, depraved American boxing club owner/drug dealer Billy (Tom Burke) brutally kills a 16-year-old prostitute. Lounge-singing, sword-wielding renegade warrior cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the girl's father Choi (Kovit Wattanikul) to kill Billy.  Billy's quiet, withdrawn brother Julian (Gosling), who also works in the drug trade, attempts to avenge Billy's death by going to kill Choi, but when he learns what Billy did and that Chang cut off one of Choi's arms as a penance for not being a better father and permitting his daughter to sell her body, he decides to let him go.  Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from the States and demands blood (when told what Billy did, she huffs "I'm sure he had his reasons"), sending Billy's enforcer Gordon (Gordon Brown) to kill Choi.  Once Choi is dead, Crystal wants Chang dead since he allowed Billy's murder.  This sets off a back-and-forth war between Crystal/Julian and Chang/the corrupt Bangkok police.

For a while, it feels as if Gosling is a supporting actor in his own movie.  Much of the film follows Pansringarm's Chang, a dirty cop who does what he needs to do to maintain law & order in an unfathomably sleazy part of town.  With the arrival of Crystal, Gosling's Julian starts to take center stage.  He's so detached, aloof, and emotionally stunted that his only "friend" seems to be Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute who ties his hands to the arms of the chair while he silently, sullenly watches her masturbate.  Julian brings Mai to dinner with Crystal, and Scott Thomas immediately establishes Crystal as one of cinema's great reprehensible monster mothers by discussing the differences in the penis sizes of her sons ("Billy's was so much bigger than Julian's"), telling Julian how weak and pathetic he is, and when Mai tells her she's "an entertainer," Crystal spits "An entertainer?  Well...how many cocks can you entertain in that cum dumpster of yours?"   Crystal has incestuous designs on her sons and it's strongly implied that she had a sexual relationship with Billy, and also reveals that Julian fled to Bangkok after killing his father.  Quite obviously, Julian is carrying some significant emotional baggage.  When Mai asks him "Why do you let her talk to you like that?" he mumbles "Because she's my mother."

Refn spills gallons upon gallons of blood in some sequences with some truly startling, audacious violence, almost the "beautiful" kind of bloodletting you see in samurai films, though there's one torture scene that, even for a jaded viewer who's seen pretty much everything, is pretty tough to endure.  But even if you have difficulty finding the narrative accessible, the film is utterly hypnotic.  The score by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, who has slowly become arguably the best film score composer working today, melds perfectly with the unique look that Refn and Smith bring, the humidity and stink of the Bangkok red-light district coming through in every shot that's bathed in melancholy neon red, pink, and blue.  ONLY GOD FORGIVES is probably most ideally viewed at 2:00 am in a depressed, sleep-deprived state of mind--with its colors and trance-like feel, maybe it would make an interesting double feature with BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW--though I'd love to see it on a huge screen (Radius/TWC only released it on 78 screens in addition to VOD).  This is one of those movies that will overcome its initial round of almost unanimous critical and audience dismissal and outright scorn and it won't take long for it to become a genuine cult classic.  When it was over, I wanted to immediately watch it again.  I'm calling it now:  this is a masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Actually I didn't find the torture scene too difficult to watch, but it was made so much more interesting by the women, instructed to close their eyes, sitting like porcelain dolls around the room. It turned the room into a kind of children's playpen, weird juxtaposition with the interrogation going on.