Monday, August 12, 2013

"Only God Forgives" review

Nicolas Winding Refn is not a dumb director. He doesn't just do things for no reason. His vision and the confidence he exudes in his directorial style had only gotten stronger and stronger with each film throughout his career. The "Pusher" trilogy introduced a new force in the filmmaking world, but "Bronson" showed the director in rare form. He began to transform his ultra-violent, strong primary colored cinematography (don't know how else to phrase) into something that felt artful and unique. He's continued to stretch his artistic style and reached the apex of his abilities with "Drive."

There's something about "Drive," isn't there? A hit with the critics, but a mixed response from everyone else. I loved the film for many reasons. Each scene, each moment in the film displayed an absolute assured amount of confidence style-wise, story-wise, and acting-wise. The story was minimal, but there was definitely a story. Enough of a story for things to go from point A to point B. "Drive" was able to get away with being so heavy on style because it had a simple and effective enough story to pull it off. It didn't emphasize the plot details, it emphasized mood, pacing, tone, yet it still got the job done when it comes to telling a coherent story. Watching it a second time amazed me even more. When you watch it a second time, the movie actually moves faster. For me, it's because the movie has such purpose, a driving force. Topple that with Ryan Gosling's quiet, affecting performance and you're good to go.

"Only God Forgives" is what happens when you take all those stylistic elements of "Drive" while stripping everything that made "Drive" work. As a result, we get a great-looking film that doesn't really have anything substantial to say or a story to tell. There's some semblance of a story here, but nothing that really sets things into motion. In promoting the film, Refn kept emphasizing that "silence is cinema." Well, silence is, indeed, cinema if you are actually telling a story or saying something compelling in that silence. Look at the end of Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color." The last 30 minutes of the film is essentially silent and yet we are still given just enough to remain hooked until the end. In "Only God Forgives," there's none of that. The "silence" is merely people walking in slow motion, striking down a sword in slow motion, or blankly staring into the camera.

There's never a sense that anything compelling is happening here. We are introduced, in the beginning, to Julian and his older brother Billy. Julian runs a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand, which turns out to be a front for a massive drug smuggling operation. While Julian spends his nights hanging out with strippers and prostitutes, Billy gets himself into very hot water when a night alone with a hooker ends violently. He winds up meeting the "Angel of Vengeance," also known as Lieutenant Chang. Chang allows the father of the hooker to beat Billy to death, but punishes the father as well, for allowing his daughter to become a hooker in the first place.

These chain of events eventually lead way to Julian's mother arriving in Bangkok to claim her deceased son's body. Julian's mother, Crystal, is a real piece of work. Angry, foul-mouthed, and completely toxic, Crystal orders Julian to avenge his brother's death but he's already refused to do so, after learning about what his brother has done. Crystal decides to take matters into her own hands, and in doing so, winds up getting into some hot water herself. Kristen Scott Thomas immediately steals the show when she comes on screen because she's the only character here that shows any color. Still, she isn't on screen enough to really get the story going.

And that's pretty much it. We're never really given any insight into the characters, except towards the end when Crystal explains the relationships she's had with her two sons. Really, for a film that's meant to emphasize the visuals, we learn everything about the characters through expository dialogue. Are long scenes without dialogue really that cinematic if it's not telling us anything? In "Drive," Ryan Gosling displays a casual, quiet confidence. Here, he's just quiet. In "Drive," you get the feeling that the driver has plenty to say, he just chooses not to speak. In "Only God Forgives," there's never really a sense that Julian has anything to say.

It's all a little too deliberate to me. Each choice in the film seems overly self-aware. The non-expressions, the staring directly into the camera, the slow motion. It's as if Refn knows there is a compelling story to tell here, but deliberately decides not to tell it. Why? "Only God Forgives" is Refn at his most self-indulgent, but not in a way that makes the film worth watching. It's gorgeous to look at, the music is, at times, incredibly tense. But that tension soon dies down and you start to get the sense that literally nothing is happening. There's no Lynchian/Jodoworsky-ian surrealism going on here (and if there is, it's misguided), it's just directorial masturbation. At least when Quentin Tarantino gets all self-indulgent, he still tells a great story along the way. He still, at least, gives us something. "Only God Forgives" just feels stylistically superficial.

I still believe in Refn. I wouldn't call "Only God Forgives" a failure because that would imply Refn didn't do exactly as he intended. But the way this film is shot, the way it's so perfectly lit, Refn knows exactly what he's doing here. He's trying to push his style as far as it could possibly go. "Drive" showed Refn stripping down so many story elements and going all-in on style. But thanks to a strong bare-bones story and a character that is compelling enough to follow, "Drive" manages to be a triumph of style-over-substance. "Only God Forgives" is Refn trying to push his style even further and what we wind up getting is a movie that is way too in love with itself. That's fine, if you're into that kind of thing, but ultimately, "Only God Forgives" simply left me cold. Nicolas Winding Refn will make better movies than this. I don't mean to be attacking his style necessarily, but damn, it'd be nice if he'd tone things down a little next time around.

Grade: D

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