ONLY GOD FORGIVES C+
Denmark France Thailand USA Sweden (90 mi) 2013 d: Nicolas Winding Refn Official site [France]
An overly somber style over substance film, where except for the excessively violent subject matter, one might think this is a Wong Kar-wai film, as the lush visuals combined with the highly eclectic musical soundtrack written by Cliff Martinez add a hypnotic, near surreal color palette. Stylishly impressive, set in the dreamy underworld of Bangkok, Thailand, but the characters all feel like they’re sleepwalking through their roles, not unlike Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID (2009), a director singled out in the credits by Refn, stuck in a netherworld purgatory waiting to be judged by a martial arts policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), dressed out of uniform in loosely fitting and comfortable clothing, who like a spaghetti western Avenging Angel or God, restores order through brutal punishments, bordering on torture porn, but his judgment comes swift and decisive instead of inflicting prolonged agony. Afterwards, in perhaps the most surreal moments in the film, Chang sings karaoke while his fellow cops sit around in uniform to listen. While the surface effects can be near spectacular, as the composition of each shot couldn’t be more remarkable, along with an edgy use of lighting and a dazzling color scheme, shot by cinematographer Larry Smith who worked on three Kubrick films, recreating the spooky element of surprise in the long hallways shots of the Overlook Hotel, but there’s little to no interior involvement, where the viewer is never connected emotionally to anything onscreen. The dialogue is so campy during some of the most violent showdowns that it borders on the ridiculous, adding an element of the absurd to the already over-the-top visualizations, making this a midnight run cult film at the time of its initial release. Refn also dedicates this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, a cult figure whose films depict picturesque horrors and humiliations, where Peter Schjedahl in his New York Times review calls EL TOPO (1970) “a violent surreal fantasy, a work of fabulous but probably deranged imagination.” Jodorowski himself is quoted as saying, “Everyday life is surrealistic, made of miracles, weird and inexplicable events. There is no borderline between reality and magic.” All of which means this was meant to be a head-scratcher, something of a mindfuck of a movie, where the Argento-like atmosphere of menacing doom defines the film.
Ryan Gosling is Julian, who along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), run a Thai kickboxing club, which we learn later is just a front for a major drug operation. Julian’s demeanor is so calm and understated that he barely utters more than a sentence or two throughout the entire film, where he doesn’t act so much as sulk, but like Chang, he’s more of a presence than an actual character. When his brother inexplicably goes berserk, raping and killing an underage prostitute, leaving her lying in a pool of her own blood, the sickening aspect is so acute that the regular cops turn to Chang, something of a specialized expert only called upon in the most hideous crimes, where his unique method renders immediate judgment, with no arrest, no trial, and no imprisonment, as if he’s not really a part of the human condition, but an elevated force to contend with, seemingly drawing upon supernatural powers. Except for his lightning quick martial arts strikes, he does everything else in a Zen-like calm, in near slow motion, as if he’s hovering over the consciousness of these criminal suspects with their fates in his hands, outraged at hearing their pathetic, self-justifying defenses, demanding that they admit to their crimes, enacting a savagely vicious arm mutilation when they don’t answer swiftly enough. In this way, the act of justice is decisively rendered and remains permanent, not some idealized concept. When Chang allows the girl’s father to take his revenge upon Billy, it’s as if the world turns upside down. Kristin Scott-Thomas arrives on the scene in an outrageously over-the-top performance as the diabolical mother mourning the death of her firstborn, still fuming and in a state of rage that Julian hasn’t exacted revenge for his brother’s murder, re-establishing her iron-like control over the drug operations, and ordering Julian around as if he was still an insolent child. The scene of the film is a formal dinner sequence between mother and son, where Julian is joined by Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute pretending to be his steady girlfriend, where the vile flamboyance of the mother turns this into a classic scene and one of the memorable highlights of the year, a uniquely horrific and thoroughly embarrassing moment where Scott Thomas becomes a dragon lady that turns belittling and malicious humiliation of her son and his hooker girlfriend into an artform, initiating an assault of crude language so debasing that she’s a contender for the most evil mother in screen history, something of a parallel to the Albert Brooks character in Refn’s previous film Drive (2011).
Thematically, a film this very much resembles is Taxi Driver (1976), another avenging angel film where Chang has to literally clean up the scum and garbage on the streets, holding the same contempt for moral rot and decay as Travis Bickle, using many of the same unorthodox methods as well, creating an eternal bloodbath as human salvation. But Scorsese’s film is deeply rooted in an incendiary, character driven performance, something altogether missing here, as outside of the commanding performance of Scott Thomas, the rest may as well be zombies or the walking dead. With each successive shot so perfectly rendered, Refn uses the photograph-like composition to advance each scene, where except for the violent action sequences, much of this film is a picture of stillness, an induced calm, like an oasis on the horizon, but something of an illusion covering up the internal turmoil hidden within. The sins of the world are covered in a kind of toxic moral laziness, while Chang’s job is to root out each rotting soul one by one. Scott Thomas blames Chang for allowing her son to be murdered, completely overlooking Billy’s own wretched acts, and sets into motion a series of blistering assaults on the police designed to remove Chang from the picture, but it’s as if he’s from a different realm, inscrutable and untouchable, surviving every attempt, until ultimately Chang finds Julian. In exaggerated spaghetti western fashion, the two head for the ultimate showdown playing out in Julian’s own boxing ring, now nearly deserted except for a few miscellaneous cops, Mai, and Julian’s mother. In the emptiness of the room, Julian proves no match, as his opponent is a phantom, a demented godlike figure with a bloodthirsty appetite for inflicting pain, literally pulverizing his victims before walking away unscathed, leaving behind a grim and overly solemn world that resembles a morgue. The film lacks the energy and entertaining appeal of any Bruce Lee movie, but overwhelms with its superb production design, ultimately feeling like an empty experience that is all surface visuals with little more to offer. Lacking the well-crafted characterization of Sergio Leone, this feels more like a cartoonish homage to the macho revenge genre, where the Tarantino-ish, overly stylish bloodletting continues, but it all feels so meaningless after awhile, becoming a one note film that only grows more tiresome.