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.


****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …