Review - "Want to fight?"

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was my surprise favourite film of 2011, a vaguely ’80s crime drama that contrasted a smooth, stylish aesthetic with blunt brutality. It was also the first movie to really sell me on Ryan Gosling as an actor, the former London, Ontario resident immersing himself in the quiet and increasingly frightening role of the film’s nameless driver. It also had an amazing soundtrack courtesy of most-underrated-film-composer-ever Cliff Martinez and electronic artists like Kavinsky, College and Desire. So I was as psyched as possible to watch Only God Forgives, the second collaboration between Refn and Gosling, again featuring the music of Martinez.

But as Drive was as unconventional a crime thriller as they come—in spite of its premise, less The Fast and the Furious and more Manhunter with cars—Only God Forgives is as unexpected a follow up to Drive as I could have imagined. I went in expecting Drive, but in Thailand, and ultimately watched what felt like something Stanley Kubrick might have directed… but in Thailand. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Only God Forgives is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen, tied with David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Half of its strangeness can be credited to its intrinsic qualities: long, brooding stare-downs, sequences that blur the line between reality and fantasy, and violence as choreographed as ballet. The other half is the film’s deceptive marketing. Sitting down to watch the movie with just the trailers and IMDb plot synopsis to go on, Only God Forgives would—and certainly did, to me—seem like a basic revenge film, the story of an American expatriate in Bangkok set on avenging the murder of his brother at the ends of a bent local cop. Fighting is to be expected, as is Ryan Gosling being a badass. But then Refn goes ahead and subverts every one of those expectations. The reality of the film is so drastic I can only assume Refn had this planned from the start.

Gosling plays Julian, an American mobster who uses an underground boxing ring as a front for a drug smuggling operation for their organization in Thailand. One night, his brother and business partner, Billy, is caught literally red handed after raping and murdering an underage prostitute. His apprehender, police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), allows the girl’s father to kill Billy in turn, before slicing off the man’s hand as a warning not prostitute his remaining three daughters as well.

Billy’s death understandably draws the attention of his and Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok to collect both her son’s body and the heads of the men responsible for his death. Crystal, the head of her seedy organization, is less Don Corleone and more Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, a spiteful drinker and chain-smoker who seemingly pit her children against one another and—it is heavily implied—had physical relations with the one who now survives. In a scene that straddles the line between painfully awkward and guiltily hilarious, Crystal invites Julian to dinner and berates both him and his female escort, Mai (Rhatha Phongam). It is pretty much impossible to quote her in this scene without offending someone.

Watching the movie, I was developing a now certainly unsubstantiated theory that Gosling’s characters here and in Drive were one in the same, but after mulling it over for a couple of days they are, ignoring more obvious but spoiler-filled details, incredibly different, if sharing a penchant for violence and minimalist dialogue. The Driver was less a character and more an elemental force, capable of dealing and receiving tremendous violence and slipping back into his calm, calculated persona with hardly a moment’s notice—the Golem of L.A., if you will. Julian, by comparison, is a ball of repression and understated envy, intentionally depriving himself of any form of pleasure and refusing to apologize for his mother even after she publicly demeans him. His façade, unlike the Driver’s, isn’t so much calculated as patched together with duct tape, and on the one, brief occasion it does crack his outpouring is simultaneously scary and pathetic. The Driver wields power, but has neither want nor need of it; Julian desires it but, in spite of his best efforts, can only grasp at air.

If the Driver does have a counterpart in Only God Forgives, it’s in the form of Chang. The Bangkok lawman has even less to say than Julian (upon further analysis, it seems that Crystal speaks more than every other character in this movie combined) but is a far more impressive force to behold, his doughy middle-aged physique belying impressive strength, resolve and even grace. As much a main character, and perhaps even more so, than Julian and Crystal, we see his quiet but clearly loving relationship with his wife and daughter, the near reverence his men have for him (especially when he performs karaoke), and his methodical approach to destroying the human body. He is also the only character to possess an overt sense of justice, which can be as wrathful as an Old Testament God’s. Nicolas Winding Refn reportedly told Pansringarm that his character believed he was God, and it shows in every swing of the machete and in the certainty of each of the few words he speaks.

And, yeah, this is totally something Kubrick would have made had his concept of filming in Asia not been limited to turning the Warner Studios back lot into urban Vietnam. There is more of The Shining in Only God Forgives than there is of Drive. Like The Shining, there really isn’t much in the way of plot, with most of its running time consisting of subtly revealing character moments. Unlike The Shining, Refn doesn’t allow his stars to mar these bits with strained overacting, and it moves at a much better pace. In spite of its elaborate mise en scène it’s very much a minimalist movie which, being a fan of minimalism, I can certainly dig. But make no mistake, it’s a weird movie, even for the director of Drive (a film that followed up a slow motion, trancelike kiss with bloody head-stomping).

So if you liked Drive and Stanley Kubrick movies and, like me, enjoy watching Ryan Gosling commit disturbing acts of violence, give it a shot. Otherwise, this will probably not float your boat.

Only God Forgives is available to watch on demand on iTunes.

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