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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn Tries To Strike Gold Again With ONLY GOD FORGIVES And Misses The Mark Completely

If pundits wish to continue the ongoing debate about reckless violence in movies, a mention of ONLY GOD FORGIVES would probably work to their advantage in a heated discussion. 

This isn't to say I have a dog in that fight either way, but if a film--specifically a drama-- contains excess violence and gore, it should at least have a substantive story. But unfortunately writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn sacrificed the subtle allegory he tactfully employed in 2011's Drive for a film that relies heavily on blood games as a simplistic form of entertainment. And it barely even does that. 

In the film, Refn re-teamed with his Drive superhero, Ryan Gosling, who stars as Julian, a oddly taciturn (who can also be described as weak) stuck in Bangkok after fleeing a criminal charge in America. Despite his bum deal, he finds himself slinging drugs among the champions of drug dealers in some of the seediest spots Refn was able to concoct. But Julian's rather complacent lifestyle comes to a screeching halt when his scumbag brother, Billy, (Tom Burke), also dwelling in the Thailand capital, is murdered after a particularly psychotic disagreement with a brothel owner goes bloodily awry.

Although we're introduced to Billy early on in the film as a somewhat ally or partner, if you will, of Julian, an ambiguous protagonist, the audience isn't exactly prepared to feel any kind of way about his quick demise. Before his death, we aren't clear on why he was in Bangkok, what kind of relationship he had with his brother or why he had a sick infatuation with violence (when we first see him he is transfixed by a particularly savage boxing match and says, "I love violence!").

Billy is virtually a stranger to us, so when his death triggers a reluctant revenge trip for Julian, as coerced by his similarly certifiable mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), we're already indifferent to the cause and utterly bored by the direction the film takes. Crystal, frustrated by Julian's hesitation toward finding and killing the man who offed her "good" son, wages a parallel attempt to retaliate on her own (with the help of a few other shady characters she's recruited). The film further spirals and soon becomes a desperately hollow mess of its own making (the gorgeous cinematography is its one saving grace). 

Although Crystal does provide some background story about her two sons, humanizing, or perhaps further dehumanizing them, just a bit, her erratic behavior--a potent blend of bigotry, callousness and carnality--does little to offer the audience anyone to care about. As the blood splatter continues to escalate, even at its most vicious, we're checking our watches for the time.

Aside from the film's utter lack of empathy for its own characters, it is also confounding in its contrived depiction of Asian culture. Street fighting, over-the-top brutality and thinly drawn characters are sadly not unfamiliar images in mainstream cinema, but here they further pronounce the already uninspired themes in the film. In one scene, we see Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Julian's prime target, ordering one of his minions to sever a man's fingers (the victim refused to give up information about Crystal) slowly and methodically in the middle of dinner at an elegant restaurant. When that's finally over (it seems to last forever), Chang resumes singly--horribly--into a microphone. This type of thing happens several times in the film and the audience becomes more and more exasperated by it. Whatever tactic Refn is using here has very little effect.

It is also worth mentioning that aside from Crystal, the women in the film are completely vapid and serve no real purpose. The females in the brothel are like trophies until Billy goes out of his mind in the beginning of the film; while Julian's escort/pet, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), is merely a pretty face, subjected to bitter insults from his mom (and, in some regard, from him as well). None of this is necessary; it only enhances the film's overall resentment toward every character.

A poor attempt to shock audiences makes ONLY GOD FORGIVES a crushing disappointment. Too much attention is spent freaking us out and not enough on building a foundation for any of the characters, especially Julian, who greatly needs a point of view (the scenes with his mother offer insight into his character but his stifled reaction only propels him toward misguided violence, painting him as a basic neanderthal). Gosling needed much more to work with.

Though Thomas is barely recognizable in the film with a crazy blonde weave a la The Real Housewives, her arresting performance--the film's only one--isn't enough to rescue the film from its own collapse. Here's hoping Refn's next one redeems him.

Rating: D (* out of *****)

ONLY GOD FORGIVES opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Watch the trailer below:


Daniel said...

Sounds like there's good reason for the reactions this garnered at Cannes. I personally lean towards Refn being a tad overrated in all honesty.

Brittani Burnham said...

Oh God, and I'm seeing this tonight.

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