Martin Scorsese – Leonardo DiCaprio. Tim Burton – Johnny Depp. Ridley Scott – Russell Crowe. David Fincher – Brad Pitt. These are all directors and actors who have worked together on several films to great success. The artist and their muses? Maybe. Now Nicolas Winding Refn – Ryan Gosling are trying to join their ranks. The two worked together on the violent, but largely successful Drive. They continue along the violent and low budget path with Only God Forgives.
The film made a sort of splash at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I write sort of because the film was booed by half the audience while the other gave it a standing ovation. Many of the critics there hated it and made their feelings clear. Yet the jury nominated it for the prestigious Palme D’Or. You can never predict what film people are going to do, can you? Whatever you feel about the film and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Valhalla Rising, Pusher) work you have to admit he is one brave and uncompromising hombre. So is the film company distributing Only God Forgives. Seville has had to rent out Cinema du Parc (the only place you can see the film on the big screen in Montreal) for a run because multi-plexes have refused to screen it due to the fact that it is available via direct download at the same time. Once again the word uncompromising has to be used in reference to this film.
Despite the fact that two men can be born of the same woman they can be so completely different that it is hard to believe they are brothers. Billy (Tom Burke – The Libertine, Cheri) is the older and favourite son of his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas – Gosford Park, Four Weddings & a Funeral). Julian (Ryan Gosling – The Notebook, The Gangster Squad) is the younger son who runs a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand. Both brothers, though they are American, live in Thailand. I’m sure that has to do with the family business which is drug running. Crystal is the head of this vast drug business and a more ice in the veins woman you would be hard pressed to find.
Julian is quiet whereas Billy is brash. They both frequent prostitutes but Julian just likes to sit there and watch the girls while his brother is more deviant liking very young girls. One evening after watching some boxing he goes to a father and asks for his young daughter. Once he gets her he beats her to a pulp.
The Bangkok police and more specifically Detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm – The Hangover, Part II) are brought in to investigate the murder of the young girl. There is not much to investigate as Billy is sitting there in the hotel room covered in the girl’s blood with her mangled body on the flood in a pool of blood. Chang is not a man who goes by traditional police rules. He believes himself to be police, judge and jury so often the criminals in his cases do not live to trial as he doles out his own form of justice with his samurai sword. In this instance he does not do it himself, but he does leave the father of the girl in the room alone with Billy to do what he wishes with him. Billy is killed and Chang does not arrest the father, rather punishes him by cutting off one of his hands.
Crystal is devastated. She arrives in Bangkok wanting revenge for her beloved son’s death. She commands Julian to exact that revenge. When he hears from the father what Billy did to his daughter Julian cannot kill the man. This leaves Crystal less than pleased and she decides to take matters into her own hands. The man she hires to locate the killers discovers what Chang has done and so the grieving mother insists on revenge against the detective. This ends up being the worst decision she has made in her life as the Angel of Vengeance is not going to go quietly. Or at all.
Basically Nicolas Winding Refn has made a martial arts film with shades of mother-son stuff thrown in to muddy the waters. While Winding Refn is obviously a fan of Ryan Gosling in this film he gives him very little to say and then has him beaten into an unrecognizable pulp at the end of it all. Even before that brutal ending the charismatic actor does very little besides clenching and unclenching his fists and looking around stoically. Winding Refn has said that the film is about a man who wants to fight God. A man who is looking for something to believe in. A drug dealer looking for a deeper meaning to life. All fine and existentially dandy, but there does have to be some substance to it and I found very little to grasp onto.
There is plenty of gruesome violence in the film, but it too is rendered impotent and rather boring. It grows tiresome very quickly looking for something to cling to about the picture. Something. Anything. Yes, I too have grown tired of Hollywood pictures, but I still need quality in my counter culture films.
The only thrill for me in the whole film was the performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is one of the best and scandalously underappreciated actresses of her generation. The woman can bring meaning and depth to the reading of a phone book. Seeing her playing a character that is part vicious anaconda and that looks like Donatella Versace (if you do not know going in that this is Kristin Scott Thomas you probably won’t guess it) was a thrill. A mother who is evil is always an interesting character and she elevates what could have been a very one dimensional character through the quality of her performance. A monster on the screen before our very eyes.
Slow and painstaking is the pace that Ryan Gosling’s character Julian moves at. He says very little and gives away very little in his soulful looks. He takes the silent character in Drive one step further and it is not a step which leads towards a stronger film. It is rather depressing that an actor of obvious talent and depth has been reduced to turning out a performance like this. A character made up of a couple of lines (if he had more than 20 lines in the film I’ll eat Kristin Scott Thomas’s awful wig) and long, uninterrupted stares does not make for a riveting watch. Less posing and more acting, Mr. Gosling. I know you have it in you.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s film will in its stylized and ritualized manner be an attractive watch for some. Most will be bored to tears and think this is one of the worst films of the year. The director I believe to be brave and talented has taken a misstep with this one in that he believes somewhat pompously that watching him fumble to show a man’s silent and convoluted search for a higher purpose is going to hold an audience’s attention for (a thankfully short) 89 minutes.
-Behind the Scenes
-The Music of Only God Forgives With Cliff Martinez
-Two Free Mp3 Files