Monday, July 29, 2013


Only God Forgives

Directed & Written
Nicolas Winding Refn

     Anyone going to see Nicolas Winding Refn's new film Only God Forgives needs to be aware that this is not like his last film Drive. I am sure he gained a new variety of fans and admirers with that great film and is working with growing star Ryan Gosling, but this is old school Refn through and through. This film hearkens back to his hard Pusher trilogy and the film he made before Drive with the exceptionally gifted Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen called Valhalla Rising. Refn's newest effort is a brooding, violent, neon colored piece of art cinema, that contains few words and much blood. It is chalked full of religious symbolism and is a beautifully, artistically shot film but is a mediocre effort from the Danish filmmaker.
     Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand, while simultaneously being a drug runner. He has been hiding out in Southeast Asia since murdering a man back in the states. Julian's brother Billy (Tim Burke), violently murders an underage prostitute and the police hire sword-wielding Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) to track him down. Chang has the father of the slain daughter gruesomely murder Billy, with a baseball hat that turns Billy's face into a flattened pancake, and then chops the father's arm off to restore balance and order since the father has allowed his daughter to live a life of prostitution at such a young age. See, Chang is the "Angel of Vengeance" and has little mercy for those that cheat, lie and commit violent acts.
     Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to Thailand to take the remains of her dead son's body back to the states. She is the head of a large criminal organization and aided her boys in their drug smuggling business. She is wicked, mean and to the point. She wants Julian to avenge his brothers death. She is the "Angel of Death" and wants vengeance at all costs. Julian, which is more of a soldier than anything else, is troubled throughout the film. And, if you thought Gosling was a mute in Drive, he is even more quiet in this film. He does what he is told and appears to have a had tormented life. He brings a female friend to a dinner with his mother and she scolds her and Julian, even commenting on the size of his penis compared to his brother's. She had a closer relationship with Billy then Julian. Too close in that Oedipal complex range. She is one domineering woman and feels that Julian has taken too long to take care of the people responsible for the death of her son. The real story is between Crystal and Chang, with Julian being a troubled fighter for the "good vs evil" battle raging between vengeance and death.
     Refn has soaked this film in neon lights that texture the mood of the characters. Rage and anger is exemplified with bright hues of red and motion is given lustrous green tones. Blue deepens the feeling and sets a tone of remote calmness against the violent stage we are viewing. In a way, it is style over substance, but the style sets the brooding mood of the film. It is very quiet and many shots examine hands or long, slow stares. These looks not only are examining a dream or the state of one's mind, but the inner demons that torment these characters.
     Refn has created this world, set against a Hedonistic Bangkok, that states the violent nature of good versus evil. The main problem is that there is not enough to chew on to give much depth to this film. I know Refn is known for slow pacing, expertly stylized images and characters that are more inward when it comes to speaking and violent when it comes to action. I like most of that. It reminds me and shows an appreciation for the films of the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and the director he salutes this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but it was just a flat story. Some of the violence over shadowed the simple story of a man searching for himself and hunting down, and murdering, the killer of his brother.
     The production is perfect as always with a Refn film. The acting is great and the standout is Thomas. She has embodied Crystal with so much hate, revenge and deceit. Thomas does not hold back at all and it was interesting to see her play a role like this with so much sinister dominance. Gosling is good and even though he does not say much, he portrays Julian with much innocence and history. The score my Cliff Martinez, who also worked on Drive, is an electronic fused mix of beats and tones that underline the inner emotions of the state of the characters and the whore houses, boxing arenas and streets these characters inhabit. Also, the stylized framing and neon balanced lighting of cinematographer Larry Smith are one of the best aspects of film. Smooth, graceful and perfectly framed.
     Refn's Only God Forgives is a decent effort from the Danish fillmmaker but does not deliver the impact and storytelling has some of his previous films have. It is beautifully shot, acted and designed, but the story does not add up and some of the gruesome violence overplays what little narrative there  is. Saying that, I still can appreciate the production value here. I like all kind of films and I can appreciate films that are soaked in images without words. This film just needed a little more, another character or storyline to give it more substance. A decent film, but mediocre compared Refn's filmography. 

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