Saturday 3 August 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

Year: 2013
Director: Nicolas Windin Refn
Screenplay: Nicolas Windin Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Synopsis is here

A quick glimpse of the trailer for Only God Forgives, Cannes’ most recent infant terrible, reminded me of something that veteran web film reviewer and general twitterholic Scott Weinberg mentioned briefly on one of his many rants on the current state of cinema. As I didn't save the tweet, I’ll do my best to paraphrase: “If there are no reviews, you’ll only have the marketing telling you what to watch.” I'm sure there was more to it than that. Possibly more swear words, but I digress. His point is important for the simple fact that as much as critics/reviewers/bloggers get a bad rap (particularly as we often appear to be out of touch with the general audience), their job is to merely inform a viewer.

This does not just mean tell someone if the film is good or not. While that is of course a large majority of what they do, they should also try and provide a certain amount of context around the film at hand. Internet commentators and keyboard warriors may feel differently, but a world without them would have even more people happily parting their well earned cash with whatever flick Hollywood would like them to consume.  Yes, I'm trying to prove my own existence here, but seriously, now that trailers and posters have stopped trying to tell you that the films released actually differentiate from each other, it’s nice to maybe have a heads up, even if you don’t agree with the writer.

Getting back to the reason why you’re on this page, Only God Forgives is the latest movie from Nicolas Windin Refn, whose 2011 feature; Drive, gained a fair amount of praise and profit from all quarters, including. If you take anything away from my review it’s this, if you see a trailer/poster for this film and see the words “from the director of Drive” anywhere on it...I'm warning you now. That’s the marketing and not the film talking. While there’s some slight thematic connections between the films (although this seems to lean more towards Refn’s Valhalla Rising), Refn leaves the muscle cars and typical convention behind. This isn’t in the same ballpark as Drive. It’s not really even on the same planet.

Sparse, violent and deliberately paced; Only God Forgives, like A Field in England and Spring Breakers, is more interested in exercising mood than narrative. If walls could talk; the cheerless and shadowy corridors that inhabit Refn’s film, would say little about the decidedly typical revenge plot situated within the films Bangkok setting. They would however, be screaming hellishly of the bleak and corrosive souls that walk amongst the blood red walls. I feel they'd have more to say than the two aforementioned films.

American ex-pat Julian (Gosling) finds himself forced to confront the killer of his morally devoid brother by his incestuous mother (Kristin Scott Thomas channelling the sorority sister of Norma Bates and Janine 'Smurf'Cody). The murderer; Chang, is a self proclaimed angel of vengeance, who takes it upon himself to deliver swift and brutal justice to those he believes deserves it.

The film is less bothered with telling the story; instead it tries to entrap the viewer inside nightmarish, neon drenched purgatory. These characters are soaked in the guilt that they've created. Visceral imagery of bound or amputated hands becomes metaphors for pleasure or protection being denied or taken.  Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang with an all knowing mysticism that’s hard to shake off. After delivering his violent sentences, he performs sickly sweet karaoke to his fellow officers who watch in straight faced silence. In doing this; is he trying and claim repentance? The film leaves such questions for the viewer.

Will the viewer respond to Only God Forgives? Hard to say. For me, it starts off a little forced before becoming a little too full of itself once or twice. A neon-lit Thailand? A film set in Asia that deals with honour and vengeance?  Even the gloomy, never flinching face of Ryan Gosling makes a few of its elements feel a tad too commonplace.  

Yet throughout I found myself enthralled by its imagery and absorbed by the sheer absurdity. I found myself caught up within the rhythms of its dark, blistered heart. I caught glimpses of pity, drip through the lavish production design, perfectly framed shots and stained souls that wander these damp, darkened Bangkok halls. For those who are willing to let it in, they maybe something in the films dankness that they may be willing to embrace.  If the walls could talk, they’d tell you that their screams get muffled by marketing posters.