Thursday, October 24, 2013

FI: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives
Denmark/Thailand, 2013
Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

This... this is a difficult movie to talk about. I don't know if Only God Forgives is misogynistic, or if it just depicts a world that is. I don't know if it is critical of the type of strong, silent, brutal men it depicts, or if it is celebrating them. I don't even know for sure whether it has anything to say, or is just an exercise in mood and style. As the latter, it presents much to be commended. The lighting and set design play up reds and blues, almost to the exclusion of other colors, while Cliff Martinez's score drones like some kind of encroaching doom. Refn's camera dollies back and forth almost as if on a bungee cord, slowly building tension—when will it snap back into place? The violence is sudden, sometimes happening off-screen and sometimes on, but always severe. The whole thing looks amazing, with Larry Smith's cinematography adapting perfectly to all the dreams, premonitions, and bizarre tonal shifts that Refn's script throws his way. I just wish I could be certain that it added up to something more than effect.

Quiet, brooding Julian (Ryan Gosling) is in charge of a muay thai gym in Bangkok, but the gym is a front for a drug operation run locally by his psychopathic older brother Billy (Tom Burke) and from a distance by their narcissistic, glamorous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Billy's ways result in the death of an underage prostitute, he winds up on the wrong side of Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a cop with his own peculiar moral code who often metes out justice with a sword. This prompts the ruthless Crystal to return to Bangkok, and her presence reopens old family wounds and leads Julian to examine his own similarly stoic morality, pushing him into conflict with Chang as well. There isn't much actual dialogue, and most of the meatiest lines go to Crystal, with Chang and Julian's impassive faces doing the heavy lifting in their scenes Throughout, strange Freudian undertones and the masochistic games Julian plays with his regular prostitute Mai (Rhatha Phongam) add layers—if somewhat stereotypical ones—to his story, while Chang gets depth (if you could call it that) through bizarre karaoke scenes.

Like Refn's previous films—I've only seen Drive and Bronson, though I understand his other movies have similar traits—Only God Forgives seems to be interested in a certain type of masculinity: brutish, quiet, violent, especially in defense of himself and those he chooses to protect. In this world, the only women are manipulative castrators, whores, or helplessly childlike. There is a sense of power intrinsic to a man's hands, power denied these women who must use other parts to get ahead. Some of this may add up to something, some may not. The problem is that, with our main characters basically blanks and everything else so moody and portentous, it's hard to find our footing or a real reason to care. Sure, atmosphere carries things a long way, and not every story needs to be character-driven. But the emotions and feelings here are too basic, to primal, to sustain and justify the operatic tone Refn establishes, and the characters are too undercooked for their quirks to feel like anything other than Refn's arbitrary choices. Throw in its questionable morality and misogyny, and its lack of depth becomes a real problem. As such, Only God Forgives is a technical and visceral success, but an intellectual misfire.

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