Only God ForgivesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/18/13 16:15:46
If there is any truth to the theory among some film critics that only a truly gifted director can make a truly awful movie--the kind that transcends mere badness as it moves into areas that run-of-the-mill hacks would never dream of going--then I guess that it is time to officially deem Nicolas Winding Refn as a cinematic genius. Having established himself as a filmmaker to watch on the basis of such cult items as "Valhalla Rising" and the "Pusher" trilogy, Refn finally made his breakthrough in 2011 with "Drive," a violent and stylish thriller in which an enigmatic Ryan Gosling found himself in the middle of an increasingly gory conflict with a brutal crime boss played by Albert Brooks. Although it was not quite the commercial breakthrough that some hoped that it would be, it earned lots of acclaim for Brooks, solidified Gosling as one of the hottest new stars around and put Refn on everyone's list of directors to watch. For his eagerly awaited follow-up, "Only God Forgives," Refn has reunited with Gosling but the result is an astonishing bore in which scenes of overly stylized nonsense are interspersed with sequences of borderline nauseating violence. The end result is so dreadful that not only will most viewers want to walk out of it long before it reaches its conclusion, they may find themselves retroactively downgrading their opinions of "Drive" as well.Set in Bangkok, the film stars Gosling as Julian, an enigmatic tough guy who runs a semi-legal boxing club with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke). However, while Julian prefers to unwind after a hard day by having himself tied to a chair so that he can watch impassively while his favorite stripper (Rhatha Phongam) does her thing, so to speak, Billy's idea of fun is more along the lines of acquiring the services of a 14-year-old prostitute and then brutally beating her to death afterwards. This attracts the attentions of local police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a man who has his own unique brand of justice. Instead of arresting Billy, he brings the girl's father around to see her bloody remains, demands that he kill Billy himself and then chops off the dad's hand as punishment for letting his daughter fall into the lifestyle that got her killed. After all that, Chang kicks back by performing a tune or two at the local karaoke bar before his fellow officer.
Julian quickly discovers the identity of Billy's killer and confronts him but when he learns of the circumstances surrounding the murder, he enigmatically decides to let him go. When Julian's not-at-all-enigmatic mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), she is outraged that Julian did not take the opportunity to avenge his brother--it also becomes more than apparent that she had a much closer relationship with Billy than with Julian and yes, that is exactly what I mean. She soon takes matters into her own hands and hires people to kill both Billy's killer as well as Chang but when the latter hit doesn't go off as planned, it kicks off a series of increasingly brutal and enigmatic events that shall not be described here on the basis that you might be eating something right now. To pass the time before things get gruesome, Julian inexplicably decides to invite his favorite stripper to have dinner with him and Mom, a move that inspires what has to be the single most uncomfortable meet-the-parent scene ever filmed.
In pretty much all of his previous directorial efforts, most notably in "Drive," Refn has taken the kind of base material that one might ordinarily find in the grubbiest of genre films and approached it in such an overly stylized manner that the end result would transcend its lowly beginnings and mutate into some kind of arthouse/grindhouse hybrid. The trouble with "Only God Forgives" is that he has pushed the stylized look and sound of the film as far as it possibly can go while utterly neglecting everything else. The story is ridiculously one-dimensional, the character less so and there is so little dialogue throughout that it almost feels like a silent movie at times, an excellent idea under the circumstances once you get a load of the dialogue on display--my favorite example being Crystal's non-plussed reaction when Julian informs her of what Billy did to precipitate his murder: "I'm sure he had his reasons."
In addition, the film raises any number of questions about its characters and their motivations and then fails to deliver on any of them in its desire to make things as enigmatic as possible--even the masturbating stripper goes through her business with a stone face that would put Buster Keaton to shame. (Maybe she was fantasizing about being in a better movie or at least one with something resembling a discernible point.) At first, this stripped-down narrative approach is mildly interesting but Refn takes it too far and towards the end, I was less interested in what there was of a story would resolve itself than I was in wondering exactly how many pages the final screenplay ran, especially since there is a very good chance that there are more words in this review than there are to be had in all of its dialogue exchanges.
"Drive" also had a gallery of strong performances to move its story along--although the respectively moody and terrifying turns by Gosling and Albert Brooks got most of the publicity, there was also excellent work turned in by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks as well. This time around, Gosling has been directed to come across as so impassive that he barely seems to be in possession of a pulse. If the character was meant to be an extreme parody of the classic taciturn antihero, what he does here might have been inspired but I fear that he and Refn want us to take him seriously and his work becomes all the more laughable.
Way way at the other end of the performance spectrum--of all possible spectrums, in fact--is the truly demented work turned in by Kristen Scott Thomas in what is easily the strangest role of her career. Playing a deranged amalgam of Lady MacBeth, Oedipus' mother and Donatella Versace, she seems to recognize just how silly the entire enterprise is and plays up the lip-smacking luridness of her part to the hilt and beyond. It is one of the most flamboyantly terrible performances that you will ever see but it must be said that you will not be able to take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you may want to at times.
Dramatically inert, achingly pretentious and repugnantly violent (we get to see brutal beatings, stabbings, slicings, burnings, dismemberments and eyeball gougings and I won't even begin to describe what occurs during the final scene between Julian and Crystal), "Only God Forgives" is the kind of movie that is so bad that you almost want to nudge the person next to you to make sure that you are not somehow hallucinating just how awful it really is. Even if one looks upon it as the kind of luridly salacious pulp-art nonsense not seen on a movie screen since Norman Mailer gave us the infamous "Tough Guys Don't Dance," it is a failure because for that to happen, it would have to be so bad that it was actually good and it only achieves the first half of that equation.If there is anything good to be said about it, it is that it fails so completely on practically every imaginable level--and many heretofore unimaginable ones to boot--that there is the hope that it may serve as a way for Refn to clear the decks of every bad idea and deranged artistic impulse and allow him to approach his next project with a clean slate to go around with his obvious talents. If that proves to be the case, hopefully his next film will find him living up to the immense promise of his earlier films. If not, then not even God is likely to forgive him for any future trespasses.
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