Skip to main content

You are the dream in my mind.

Only God Forgives
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Pretentiousness incarnate, and off-puttingly violent to boot.  Those seem the chief accusations levelled at Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, with the added slap down that it’s slow and dull. There’s some truth to all those criticisms, although how much they become black marks or virtues is clearly in the eye of the beholder. I liked the film, but Refn definitely exposes the limitations of his thematic content by placing his emphasis in such a foregrounded and aesthetically indulgent manner.


I should emphasise that I’m not immune to decrying filmmakers over their pretensions towards pretension. I find Refn’s fellow countryman Lars von Trier insufferable, and each time I find myself persuaded to check-out-one-of-his-films –absolutely-must-see my prejudices against him are only reconfirmed. I probably qualify as a fair weather appreciator of Refn’s work, since I liked Drive for all its glossy existential minimalism but still haven’t got around to investigating earlier pictures. To an extent, it surprises me Only God Forgives has been turned on so ferociously; it’s clearly following the same path of stylistic excess as that film. Probably the key is not its more lofty mythic and surreal elements, it’s that it betrays what is essentially Drive’s very easily recognisable hero narrative. Drive is so pared down and identifiable with that, for all the eruptive violence, it is broadly palatable. Only God Forgives eschews any such comfort, and its difficulties lie here rather than through being wilfully oblique.


Refn dedicated his film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but I think its safe to say he lacks the philosophical complexity of his inspiration. Even a brief glimpse of one Jodorowsky’s films is likely to leave one with the impression the director is something of a mentalist, in the Alan Partridge rather than Simon Baker sense. That’s not something you’d assume of Refn. There’s no sense of a director guided or impelled to express himself through strong beliefs or primal, irresistible forces. The danger inherent in Only God Forgives is it may serve to expose its director as the shallow art house guy, feted above the Hollywood set but actually more at home confined to their formally unchallenging storytelling.  Style over substance can be a complimentary term in Hollywood but in the art movie it represents a desecration of one’s calling.


Only God Forgives reminds me more of David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick, but even then with qualifications. There is the feeling and atmosphere of a Lynch film but no sense of an imagination of unknown depths let loose. This movie could never go anywhere off-beam; it is really quite restricted in content. Refn’s construction is very calculated in relation to meaning and symbolism, in a literal way you would never find with Lynch. In that sense it possesses something of the precision of Kubrick; those Shining-esque slow tracks down corridors, reinforced by a bassy, rumbling, soundtrack. And where Lynch’s films possess an acute sense of humour, borne as much out of extreme environments and fractured realities as unstable characters, Refn often feels like he doesn’t quite know what he’s got. He doesn’t push the performances the way Kubrick does in The Shining, but there’s no way you can watch the dinner scene, in which Ryan Gosling’s Julian and girlfriend/hooker Mai (Rhatha Phongam) are engulfed by a torrent of venom spewed forth from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), his Cruella de Vil mother with an Oedipal spin, and not conclude this is all so absurdly over the top it’s intended to be funny. Generally, however, the self-awareness humour brings might have been the missing antidote to Only God Forgives’ portentous town.


Refn has said that Drive should feel like really good cocaine and Only God Forgives like really strong acid, which may provide too much of an insight into the director’s limited agenda. The latter might be his strongest link to Jodorowsky’s approach given his ‘70s pictures were so associated with intoxication and ecstatic states to one degree or another. I’m not sure you could really label Only God Forgives an acid trip, though. It has hallucinatory sequences (hands, right; they’re everywhere, even when they aren’t there any more), dream-like elements and aspects that can only be explained in a fantastic way, but at no point does the picture become unmoored and cast adrift in a sea of the unmartialled subconscious. Refn has his hand too firmly on the tiller for this to descend into a bad trip, for all the eyeball gouging and amputation on display.


After all, the director has set out his somewhat one-note stall with the title. Once you connect that to the content there isn’t much else to say. Gosling’s underworld Bangkok drug dealer, whose front is a Muay Thai martial arts club, is pitched into a world of revenge and family purgatory when his older brother Billy, a very sick individual, meets his end after raping and murdering an under-age prostitute. Julian refrains from taking out retribution on the avenging father, to his mother’s disgust. It becomes clear that the entire clan is deeply unwholesome. Crystal has a Jocasta-like hold over her surviving, and uses overtly sexual language in his presence. Her response to the news of Billy’s actions is the ice cold “I’m sure he had his reasons”. She goads Julian over her brother’s more accomplished manhood (“How could he compete with that?”), and Julian’s reaction is to take the blows. Indeed, he ranges on Mai, who is mystified why he would let his mother treat him like that; “Because she’s my mother”.


Crystal’s call for revenge initially seems to be of the mafia-esque blood-is-thicker variety; it doesn’t matter what Billy did, justice must be served. But any scales of justice turn distinctly dicey when her instructions become far much more than eye-for-eye retribution (she wants cop Chang’s family killed too). Further still, she is willing to sacrifice Julian without pause when it comes to her life or his; her unnatural hold over her son is one of pure manipulation. Affection was only reserved for her first born. This is emphasised by Julian’s post-mortem mutilation of his mother (and the way it echoes the look-don’t-touch jollies he gets from Mai pleasuring herself). He has the younger child’s insecurity over never being as special as his elder sibling; “He killed his own father with his bare hands” because Crystal asked him to (not that she tells Change this; “He’s a very dangerous boy”). And the promise that “I can be your mother again” is the ultimate carrot on the stick to bend him to her will.


However, Only God Forgives is painted in broad strokes; there’s nothing really resonating beneath the Greek tragedy surface trappings, despite the amount Refn leaves unsaid. Gosling doesn’t have 20 lines in the whole film; Mad Max 2 minimalism without the accompanying heroic iconography. Accordingly, Gosling’s brooding impassivity doesn’t hold much impact. But that might be part of Refn’s peculiar point. Scott Thomas eats up her role and spits it out with relish, though. She’s a toxic tour de force; Crystal has a lump of burning coal where her heart should be.


Vithaya Pansringarm’s Lieutenant Chang represents Crystal’s equal and opposite. Both are bringers of unremitting judgement. He roams Bangkok with the smooth precision of a Zen Judge Dredd, dispensing his own exclusive brand of justice based on particularly inimitable reasoning (“He’s not the one” he deduces as soon as he sets eyes on Julian, discounting him from murdering Choi). Dismemberment, torture, impalation; all are acceptable and appropriate depending upon the culpability of the subject. And then there are some he lets off, perhaps for sentimental reasons (a hit man looking after his crippled son is allowed to live, but its unclear if this is because Chang will be taking a father from his son, or because he loves his boy). 


While Chang operates as a supernatural force, haunting the dreams of Julian (he might even be a figment of his imagination, such is the acid trip reflex here) and flourishing a sword of righteousness from no visible place on his back, and may well be believe himself to be an instrument of divine retribution, even divine himself, he does not possess the tools to forgive. Only to arbitrate. He is also a dab hand, and foot, at Thai boxing (during a fight that leaves Julian looking not unlike Nic Cage at the end of Wild at Heart, Julian can’t even connect) and a keen karaoke enthusiast (a singing detective). These musical interludes, sometimes overlaid with Cliff Martinez’ ominous rumbling rather than Pansringarms’ tones, are the closest we come to the warped vibe of Lynch; Chang’s supernatural precognition of danger is much more familiar.


It has to be said, with all these aspirations to content, depth and meaning, Refn is at his most effective when he is creating the purely visceral or adrenalised. A machine gun massacre leads to Change chasing an assassin on foot and taking him out with a sizzling frying pan. The expertly choreographed fight between Chang and Julian (“He’s not much of a fighter”), accompanied by a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in TRON Legacy. The uncertainty over what Julian will do when it comes to killing Chang’s family. There is some deeply unpleasant violence on display, mostly during the extended torture of the man who order the hit, but it would be a mistake to assume this is one long inferno of brutality. It’s more that the subject matter is tonally harsh and unforgiving.


So yes, Refn’s pretentious side is Only God Forgives’ least-most quality. It serves to highlight the limitations of its director’s ideas and content, right down to the indeterminate final sequence.  But like Drive, he packages his material in visually and aurally seductive ambiance. The charge of lethargic pace isn’t one I can really recognise; in contrast, the opportunity to soaking up the atmosphere of this neon-charged, primary colour, world of bold shadows and dissecting lines is the picture’s greatest strength. And, in this instance at least, the limited nature of what is behind it isn’t a deal breaker. I can forgive Refn his indulgence and ostentatiousness, although I can’t speak for God.


****

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi