Time To Meet The Devil
Nicholas Winding Refn
Set in Thailand, we are introduced to Julian [Gosling], a US expatriate who operates a Muay Thai boxing arena in Bangkok and his brother Billy [Tom Burke], who uses the arena as a front for drugs smuggling and trading. The opening events of the film depict Billy taking in the local brothels, searching for an underage girl to have sex with. His lack of success leads to violent outbursts against both the pimps and the girls themselves. Finally, he rapes and kills an underage prostitute before being apprehended at the scene of the crime – seemingly with no remorse for his actions. The officer in charge is Lieutenant Chang [Pansringarm], a cop with little tolerance for crime and a sense of street justice. He summons the girl’s father to execute Billy, before Chang punishes the father for failing to take care of his daughter and removes one of his hands with a sword. Julian is notified and seeks retribution but on learning of his brother’s actions, lets the man go unharmed. A few days later Julian and Billy’s twisted mother (who is the head of the criminal element in their family), Crystal [Scott Thomas] arrives in Bangkok, appalled at Julian’s inability to avenge his brother’s demise. Crystal takes matters into her own hands, hiring outside contractors to kill Chang but he proves a difficult individual to eliminate and seeks retribution against the Thompson family.
Only God Forgives is full of elements that made Drive a stunning release but none of the key execution that actually made it work; as if someone had watched Drive and tried to produce their own version. The lead characters are completely unsympathetic to the point of becoming outright deplorable. Dealing with oedipal incest, paedophilia, prostitution, violence, murder, mutilation and drugs, our central characters are unquestionably scum – some would even argue that Chang’s vigilante justice despite his position of authority is equally despicable. With a central focus on cinematography and the overall visual execution, the acting leaves a lot to be desired. The three key roles are incredibly flat and the few supports that are featured rarely veer outside of demands one would ask of scenery. Ryan Gosling is an incredible actor, I’m not going to question that, but his inability to deviate from three facial expressions (as deep and emotional as they may be) becomes incredibly boring, incredibly quickly. Stepping away from typecasting roles of the cool, suave hero, to a rather weak willed and often physically incapable individual is certainly praiseworthy for an actor but without attempting something dramatically challenging, it’s just another look at the same Ryan Gosling we’ve seen a thousand times before. Arguably, the same could be said of Vithaya Pansringarm’s portrayal of Chang but unlike Gosling there’s something interesting about him. Yes, I understand that Julian killed his father at his mother’s request and he’s still reeling from it but this is never explored enough to becoming an intriguing development. Chang being a family man (specifically a single father), an officer of the law and a man of uncompromising moral beliefs, is an individual audiences would be curious to explore and find out why he has become this way; his reasons, his motivations, his opinion on the man he is/has become and whether he believes this will actively change anything.. but it’s never touched upon. Then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal. From her introduction onward, she is an amazing presence. It’s very easy to highlight the loud, crass character because it requires a specific amount of ‘acting’ but this is like saying your favourite colour is red. The first colour the eye is drawn to (on a chemical level) is red. On our spectrum, it takes immediate priority – not to mention the connotations with blood, wine, danger, etc. So naturally, one actively notices red more often than any other colour, so too with performances, we are often drawn to the most over-the-top character because of their over-the-top nature. But after a while, she starts to fade a little and her constant swearing, disregard for local authority and lack of insight into her fascination with her sons and their penises wears thin.
It’s all fine and good despising the characters, hating the story and cringing at the sparse dialogue but no one can deny the film is absolutely gorgeous. Each and every single shot is framed, lit and executed with such precision and beauty. Luring you in, building a gnawing tension, equally beautiful and monstrous in the same brushstroke; to strive for these kinds of shots is commendable and certain directors achieve a handful per film but to nail it in every scene is frankly miraculous. Laced on top of that, we’re treated to Cliff Martinez’s exceptional score – a tense, atmospheric pulsing that resonates from start to finish… except for the karaoke interludes but we’ll get back to that later. But that’s the start and end of my praise for this film. Only God Forgives is a nauseatingly soppy love letter to 80s art house cinema without any of the narrative charm or class. Taking a simple premise, building it over time, focusing on visuals over script or plot, utilising synthy techno musical elements with a deep bass hum throughout and cutting to moments of shocking violence. Having said that, I do not believe the violence to be detrimental to this movie. I will agree that the violent element is graphic but it’s short lived and fails to sink to the depths of exploitation cinema (it’s not as atrocious as the Hostel films, for example). After a while though, it tends to get a little boring, big scary opening which peters out to repetitive tedium. When Chang is interrogating one of Crystal’s hired men, he starts by taking a pair of ornamental chopsticks and plunging them into the man’s arms, pinning him to his chair. Wince from the audience and the scene continues. The tension builds a little as Chang produces a second pair of chopsticks and punctures the seated man’s legs. At which point, it becomes a little silly. So rather than fearing for the victim’s well-being and cringing over what horrors his tormentor could inflict next, the events become farcical scenarios.. laughable even. Which, when we’re talking about a man getting his eyes gouged and pierced, is quite the statement.
In all honesty, I have no idea who this film is made for; there’s no demographic that can be singled out. The Gosling groupies won’t be interested in the drama or the weak pillar of impotence that Mr. Gosling portrays, the hardcore grisly vengeance/horror people won’t care for the disorientating story and sporadic, underplayed violence and cinemagoers simply looking for an entertaining story will probably be the most disappointed. If anything, I can only assume that fans of visual flare over actual substance will praise this movie for the feast for the eyes that it is. But to make a meandering mess like this, just to house gorgeous shots is music video territory and unsuitable for a ninety minute release. A point stapled by the simplistic symbolism which fans will argue was deep, complex and meaningful but in actuality it’s amateurish at best. It’s not often I tell people not to bother with a film, believing my reviews are more analytical studies than a simple recommendation/condemnation but in this case, whether a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn, Gosling or new cinema, I would skip this release.
2nd August 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
There is a rather surprising amount of karaoke in this film. After each encounter with the criminal underworld, Chang brings his men to a local bar, where they sit in paralytic silence as their commander sings to them. It should have meaning or add some colour to the performance (think Gary Oldman in Leon) but it just comes off as obscure and ridiculous. Most notably, Chang is singing over the end credits and while Pansringarm has a reasonably nice voice, it’s fucking stupid and several people at my screening were giggling, despite the severity of the scene.
This is tricky. With no likeable or relatable characters and no one evolving or emoting beyond their introductory scene, it’s almost impossible to select a highlight. For every positive element to a performance, there’s an equal amount of terrible things – both in terms of character actions and acting. At a push, I would say Pansringarm for his range but it’s really not that diverse. This really isn’t a film about characters, it’s a film about the presentation of characters.
“Remember girls, no matter what happens.. keep your eyes closed. And you men.. take a good look”
In A Few Words:
“As an homage to 80s high art European cinema every stunning shot is gloriously absorbing, as anything else Only God Forgives is a self-indulgent fucking travesty”