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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

After 2011's "Drive" which stood proudly as my number one film of that year, I waited in breathless anticipation for Director Nicholas Winding Refn's follow up. "Drive" was the mainstream breakthrough that had long eluded Refn despite good critical notices for "Valhalla Rising" and especially "Bronson". Having never seen the former, and struggled through the latter, I was hopeful that Drive was a predilection for where Refn's filmmaking style would continue to travail. Having reunited with that previous film's star and the same composer, the possibilities for similar success were strong. Incidentally, "Only God Forgives" was booed and given a standing ovation at the same time at the Cannes Film Festival, promptly won the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival, and has a received generally negative reviews from critics. Where's the truth lie? For my part, somewhere in the middle, but generally towards the good.

"Only God Forgives" centers on Julian (Ryan Gosling) who runs a boxing club in Thailand with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) which fronts for their drug trade. After Billy rapes and murders a young girl, the police officer, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), overseeing the crime scene allows the young girls father to take vengeance on Billy. As a result of this end, Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to Thailand to take vengeance and seeks to enlist Julian into that aim. The struggle between Julian's moral compass and his loyalty to his domineering mother, while Chang threatens further investigation into the family, is the focal point of the film.

As a cinematic experience, "Only God Forgives" feels akin to a ballet. While the film works as a clear nod to Refn's indebtness to the American Western and Hong Kong cinema, there is also a more tragic tone at work.  Between scenes where the plot moves at a brisker pace, there are moments of near-pensiveness and telegraphed symbolism that play as a precursor to the end result of the freight train of a narrative. At first, this "brake pumping" may feel tedious, and at certain points it goes too far, but when placed into context within the finished product, the operatic structure works rather well if you're open minded enough to allow it wash over you a bit. In that sense, compared to the lackluster Melancholia which attempted a similar sense of grandeur, Refn's latest is a sterling success.

Beyond narrative delivery devices, the plot itself is compelling, rather than in "Drive" where we root for the criminal turned avenging angel/LA superhero, in "Only God Forgives" the audience is placed in the perspective of a more complex and disturbed protagonist. It's hard to identify with Julian, he's not a good person and other than a few moments of mercy that give a deeper insight, he's difficult to embrace. The same could be said for Chang, who isn't a typical antagonist either. He's a lawman, but also his own judge, jury and executioner, not afraid to spill alot of blood to meet his needed ends. He also enjoys vigorous rounds of karaoke. This gray-scale shading over these two warring sides is a thoughtful plus. Gosling is, as usual, excellent, even if his range has been slotted into the "silent, loner type" for the past few films, his ability to emote with the simplest facial movement is incredible.

Somewhere in the middle of the conflicted feelings the viewer may have sits Crystal, who is a nightmare mixture of Lady MacBeth and a millionaire housewife. The moment she arrives in Bangkok, the film explodes from its slight doldrums, by giving the viewer a character to absorb that is remorseless and is the central figure in defining not only the key target for Chang, but also why Julian has such an internal struggle, cueing a number of Oedipal allusions. Beyond the fact that she's an untrustworthy character, her earnestness makes her come alive in a very different way than Julian or Chang. She is clearly someone who has become hardened by her years living in the environment that eventually shaped Julian and his brother. Her flaws as a mother are many, but that makes her equally just as compelling. Crystal is the center cog by which everyone else moves to the time of. Every scene in which she appears are amongst some of the film's best, all credit due to Thomas here who is simply not in enough films state-side.

From a visual stand-point, "Only God Forgives" is gorgeous, utterly drenched in neon light, I was reminded of films like "Tokyo Drifter" and "Enter the Void" with Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith's fantasy style take on Bangkok. The picture crackles with life, red hallways, beautifully lit night clubs, and a market district that resembles a more modernized take on the Kubrickian urban ideal. This similarity is of little wonder, as Smith served as DP on "Eyes Wide Shut" wherein he similarly drenched New York City in a noticeably dimmer but similar veneer. This is a film that even when it's at its absolute most repelling, it's tough to look away from.

"Only God Forgives" for its positives, does contain a few detracting points, the most pressing of which is the films ability to take what was a strength in "Drive", a sense of silent storytelling, and turn it into a weakness by taking it to the extreme. While this works very well in parts, its overuse does become a bit exhausting. In "Drive", only our main protagonist operated in such a minimal reality space with limited verbal cues. Here, not only are Julian and Chang silent for most of the film, but so is just about every other character. Its as if Refn wanted to take the visual "language" of his previous work to its next logical extreme. It would have worked in smaller doses, but it does become overkill, perhaps to the detriment of the plot. A few characters, Julian's prostitute love interest for instance, feel more like chess pieces, than fully fleshed out creations. They certainly do not get even a fraction of the attention that the three main players do.

Heavy-handed symbolism is Refn's other biggest failing here. While a few scenes that utilize the hands as a symbol for guilt and justice work well, particularly when you get a grasp (no pun intended) for where the story mechanics are leading. At issue though is just how often these symbols appear, in retrospect, its easy to feel like you might have been hit over the head a bit. The mother-son Greek tragedy, on the other hand, doesn't begin to skirt ickiness until the proceeding's latter half with a short, slightly gross-out scene that I can only term as "regrettable" in just how overt its attempted messaging is.

In the end, perhaps it was lowered expectations due to advance critical response, but I found "Only God Forgives" quite enjoyable. The craft is impeccable and its central narrative is strong enough to have never left my mind wandering at any point. It isn't the triumph of "Drive", but it is one of the more intriguing films I've seen this year. I'm certain I will be revisiting it far more often than anything else I've seen thus far in 2013. There's much to absorb, but for the time being, I will say it was a throughly good, if slightly bumpy, viewing experience.

I give it a B, though upon a second viewing this grade could easily be a B+.

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