Film Reviews

Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Refn

Rating - 9/10

It’s really no surprise that Only God Forgives was booed at Cannes and is now wading underwater with the critics aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes. First off, you have to question the judgment of these supposed cinephiles that decided to spend their summer vacation at a beach covered with rocks. Second, they booed L'Avventura too, probably because Antonioni didn’t get up there and explain the whole thing to them. Third, we are living in the age of ironic detachment, the age of the uneducated hipster (as opposed to the 50’s variety that sought refuge in thinkers like Sartre rather than Dunham) who always has one eye on the crowd less he be caught taking anything too seriously, and the age of the over-educated empty vessel, so mired in the politically correct groupthink of their fellow MFA graduates that they celebrate mediocrity at the expense of real artistry. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

Yes, I think this is a great film, and I think that much of the criticism it has received stems from a failure of imagination. Sure, there's abundant and graphic violence and bloodshed, there's some seriously fucked up sexual relationships at play, and it's all wrapped up in a slowly paced, "stylish" package. Let's talk about that word "stylish" for a second. You hear it everywhere about this film just as you heard it used to describe Refn and Gosling's last collaboration, Drive. Do you see the hipster detachment at work here? Can't a dramatic film be taken seriously anymore if it is not naturalistic? We seem to have no problem with super people flying all over town, saving humanity every couple weeks. Why can't we accept that every movie, even ones that take place in a version of the real world, is just as much a fantasy as The Avengers? So let's not be put off by a director who deliberately blocks his scenes, uses lighting to heighten emotion, and frames shots like he is taking or painting a picture, and most importantly, doing all these things because he actually has something to say or questions to ask.

In a series of films, from Valhalla Rising up to the present, Refn has been exploring the nature of masculinity and morality. His characters frequently maintain some code of ethics that is unique to themselves and their situation. They try to find the right path in an immoral world, which only offers them bad choices. In this film, Gosling plays Julian, an expatriate running a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for dealing drugs. His brother Billy, a violent psychopath, brutally murders a prostitute, seemingly out of a deep-rooted hatred of women. Enter Chang, the chief of police who routinely enforces his own version of justice. In this case he encourages the murdered girl's father to beat Billy to death and then severs the father's arm with a machete for allowing his daughter to work as a prostitute. Julian and his associates find the father but after hearing him explain what happened he decides not to kill him. This act of mercy infuriates Julian's mother, played brilliantly by Kristen Scott Thomas, who demands revenge for Billy's death without excuses. She not so subtly questions his manhood every chance she gets and you sense that this has been part of their relationship for a long time. Julian is constantly studying his hands, balling them into fists as if ready to fight. When he visits a prostitute/girlfriend Mai, he has her tie his hands as he watches her, not as a fetish, but to control his rage. This is why Gosling's performance is so muted - he is afraid to act less he explode. In a misguided attempt to please his mother he brings Mai to meet her, which turns out to be a thoroughly emasculating experience, after which he temporarily loses his cool with Mai with no provocation. Finally forced by his mother to confront Chang for his role in Billy's death, he asks to fight him and is completely overwhelmed by the older, more experienced man. The violence is bound up with sexual fear, stemming from his mother's relationship with the older Billy which appears to have been incestuous. The Oedipal connection is made explicit when we learn that at his mother's demand, Julian has murdered is father - likely the reason he has fled America. There are also Shakespearean elements to the story, with Julian's sublimated sexual impulses echoing Othello and his mother's influence reminiscent of Lady Macbeth.

As in Drive, Refn is telling a mythical story, with little superfluous ornamentation. The tone is thoroughly Kubrickian, not least because his cinematographer is Larry Smith, who also worked on Eyes Wide Shut. Shots are slow and deliberate, perfectly framed, with skillful tracking used extensively. It is a beautiful film, despite the violence, and while there is much to ponder in Julian's dilemma, the pleasures it delivers are primarily cinematic. This is also a brave and ambitious work, which could have been expected to divide people even in its conception. Refn should be congratulated for pursuing his vision stubbornly with Gosling rather than be tempted into making Drive 2. Like Kubrick and Lynch, he has not shied away from surrealistic storytelling that is bound to lose most impatient viewers. But the dreamlike scenes serve a purpose and are meant to evoke rather than confuse. This general public can be excused for not getting it, but critics at least are supposed to look a little deeper. But I think it's time for a comeuppance for both Gosling and Refn. Who do they think they are? The films' graphic violence gives critics an out to excoriate Refn for exploitation in order to avoid taking it seriously. Besides, isn't there the faint colonial whiff of Our Man in Bangkok here, giving the good liberal scribbler something to be righteously indignant about? Never mind all that - go see this movie and give it a chance, think about it even, then pass judgment. Refn thinks you're smarter than the critics.