wd – Nicolas Winding Refn
ph – Larry Smith
pd – Beth Mickle
m – Cliff Martinez
ed – Matthew Newman
cos – Wasitchaya 'Nampeung' Mochanakul
p – Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke
When I was quite young, one of the first serious films I saw was Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). I was far too young to know what to make of it. I have now seen it many times and know exactly what to make of it. I also first encountered David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that same year. In my prepubescent critical mind I disregarded these films as making no intelligible sense therefore lacking in any respectability whatsoever. Give me Billy Wilder instead of all that rubbish. Like most adolescents, I thought I knew everything.
Nevertheless, clearly I had to return to these pictures again, their stature being so high in history, but more than that, something was eliciting me inside. I kept thinking that submitting myself to revisiting of these and others like them would lead me to a point…..until I realised that the revisits were the point. These movies were about something and that’s why they were great. That something may require patience, wisdom and guts, but if it’s there, you will find it.
Only God Forgives is a movie from Mars. Every fibre of my being tells me it is dumber than a bag of hammers, but even that very notion is so apparently titillating that I can’t help but feel that there might be something to this. Upon days of contemplation, I guess there isn’t. One film critic out of fifty has felt there is; the rest, not.
This critical reception of Only God Forgives also falls under the expectation paradox. I, however, do not. The film comes from director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose last film, Drive (2011), was severely overpraised at the time. Both films share the asinine, infantile arty prattle that everyone has found so offensive only this time round. I can’t get behind an argument that implies this is a movie so bad that only very talented people could have made it. A lot of these people are barely competent. The only good film Mr Refn has made was Bronson (2008). So, I guess my coming into the theatre from this different angle may account for my fascination in the garbage on screen.
The film is set in Thailand (for no real reason, other than to homage 80s Asian sub-crime films). Ryan Gosling plays what I can only assume is a Refn surrogate. He’s a drug dealer who owns a boxing gym and loves to keep his lips tight and walk really slowly down neon-lit corridors followed by camera dollies. He is commanded by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the murder of his brother (Tom Burke) – even though this particular brother raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, but, according to his mother, “He must have had his reasons”.
Moral artistic complexity arrives in the form of a former cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who always keeps a sword behind his back to hurt people with, though sometimes he likes to use hairpins. The complexity in question refers to the fact that he has a young daughter and therefore has a personal crusade against abuse of young girls. This also compels him to sing a lot of karaoke because, well, why not? Both he and Gosling spend the film in a contest of who can be less expressive.
While all of this is going on we see limbs carved, faces singed, eyeballs pierced, prostitutes masturbating, shots of children staring at things, Kristin Scott Thomas doing her version of Donatella Versace, shots of gushing blood, shots of modern furniture, shots of characters from side-view, front-view, bird’s-eyed view, no-eye view and a great deal of dead air (not counting Cliff Martinez bombastic music).
Only God Forgives is a lot of noises and images, which, believe or not, is not a movie. The problem here is Mr Refn is an excellent decorator who just happens to like photographic symmetry. He’s a like a carpenter; a carpenter who can build a magnificent table. Unfortunately, this is not what a director is. The director is not the carpenter. The director is the architect. One of Mr Refn’s techniques is to shoot chronologically and edit sequences once they’ve been completed. This avows my theory.
So I can’t quite call this Mr Refn’s Zabriskie Point because that would imply he has made a Blow-up. Though if we’re going to bring up other filmmakers, Mr Refn actually dedicates the movie to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Gasper Noe, both of whom have nothing in common with their apparent dedicator. But I can’t deny experiencing giddiness whilst witnessing a filmmaker so foolishly attempt to conceal desperation with supposed capability. And, well, in the end, if God can forgive it, I guess I can too.