"Time to meet the devil."
In certain, geeky circles, the summer of 2013 was all about one film, Only God Forgives. The re-teaming of director Nicolas Winding Refn with his Drive star Ryan Gosling promised to be the film snob's event film of the summer. But a curious thing happened back in May at The Cannes Film Festival, where Refn had won the Best Director prize in 2011 for the aforementioned Drive; the film was booed after it's screening. The word on the street was that the film was a disaster. But part of me held out hope that the film wasn't as bad as the hype. After all, Cannes was the same place where Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was greeted with boos in 1976. So is Only God Forgives the second coming of Taxi Driver, or a rightly derided calamity all its own? Read on to find out...
First of all, it's my own fault for thinking that Only God Forgives could ever be as good as Drive, let alone another Taxi Driver. The film is an unmitigated failure, saved only by the fact that it fails in such spectacular fashion, you can't help but admire a director willing to fiddle away while everything around him goes up in flames. This is not some coldly detached work of a filmmaker trying to make the best of an awful script. This is the work of a man who's willing to push every last button he has access to in hopes that if you're not entertained, then at least you have a solidly concrete reason why you hate the film.
Opening in sweat drenched neon red, Only God Forgives tells the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American living and working abroad with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) at a Thai boxing club. When Billy decides one night that he wants to have sex with a 14 year old girl, but settles instead for raping & murdering a 16 year old, he is in turn murdered by the victim's father. A police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who has an equal penchant for justice and karaoke, determines that the proper punishment for the victim's father is to lose his right arm.
Not satisfied with this brand of justice, Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, the prototypical ugly American, to dispense her own justice. Crystal sets about belittling Julian for not sympathizing with his dead brother, despite the terrible thing he did, and when it becomes clear that he will not participate in her revenge plot, she calculates her own. It's not quite as simple as she thinks, however, since Chang almost seems to be superhuman in his ability to dodge death at every turn, and he, Crystal and Julian are all set on a collision course with destiny.
As a director, Refn has always had an eye for composition, framing his shots in a way that is, at times, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. With this film, however, he transcends into full-on mimicry. Several shots are lifted wholesale from A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, 2001, and most notably and often, The Shining. He dedicates the film, as he did with Drive, to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is most assuredly a kindred spirit, but this film is pure Kubrick-lite. Even the soundtrack, with its pulsing, whirring bass lines, can't help but feel derivative of Kubrick's synthesized scores. It's also present in the way he uses lighting, most particularly neon lighting, to reveal characters in otherwise total blackness.
More than anything else, the film feels wholly unessential. It feels like a short film premise dragged agonizingly to feature length. It clocks in just shy of ninety minutes, but it feels like an absolute eternity at times, particularly when the film has a dearth of dialogue to propel the scenes forward. He's done that before, most notably his 2010 film Valhalla Rising, a miniature masterpiece done almost solely with visuals, so of course this film can't even help but feel derivative of his earlier work as well as the work of others. It's sad to say, but you very quickly become desensitized to the violence as well, because it seems designed solely to titillate rather than shock as it did in his aforementioned films, as well as his fantastic 2008 film Bronson.
All of that being said, I have to at least admire Refn for being so committed to his work. While the film does feel inferential and wholly unnecessary, it's at least going for something. You can't accuse Refn of not being devoted to the film, no matter how overwrought and vile it is at times. His stamp is all over the film and he has a dedication to the material that's not present with many other filmmakers. The film is very reminiscent of the work of Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void) in that it is wholly repulsive and unsettling, but nonetheless radiates with the heart of someone that truly loves what they're doing.
It's almost foolish to try and critique the performances in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas has the only thing even approaching a three-dimensional character, and it's only because of a scene late in the third act, when she finally shows her true nature, that her character becomes more than a one-note caricature. Gosling is once again coasting on his ridiculous wannabe Steve McQueen stoicism, and it's worn so thin by his first three scenes that you'll want to throttle some life into him around the thirty minute mark. He has one moment where he explodes with rage, but it's so melodramatic and ridiculous that you can't help but wonder why he even went for it in the first place.
I was expecting to discover that Pansringarm is an accomplished actor with tons of credits in his native Thailand to his name, but this is only his 8th role in a feature film. He's not necessarily bad, but his character is borderline impossible to feel any empathy towards, even though he seems to be the only one with a true moral compass (despite an attempt by Refn to inject Julian with one late in the film). Much like Kubrick, Refn uses his actors as set dressing, and doesn't expect much more of them than to hit their mark to create the picture he's trying to paint.
I can't honestly say that Only God Forgives is a film only for Refn fans or completists, because I don't even think it's worth the time of people who would label themselves as such. It's a dirty, disgusting, repulsive little film that will be forgotten quickly. It has little artistic value and can't even be admired for its few moments of true visual flair. For almost the entire film, I couldn't decide if the things happening on screen were supposed to be real or a dream, since clues like costumes or character appearances were all over the map. More than anything else, I just don't even care enough to find out, and that's the saddest indictment of all against the film.
GO Rating: 1.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]