Unfortunately, this reflection on Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film ONLY GOD FORGIVES will have many pretentious-sounding film school words like “expressionism” and “mise en scene.” I apologize ahead of time but if you want to chop someone’s hands off set your sights on director Mr. Refn (PUSHER trilogy) himself instead of me. The film presented to audience by the man behind the terribly infectious BRONSON and the deliriously minimal VALHALLA RISING will be something of a letdown after 2011’s extremely nerd-popular, DRIVE. In his latest, Refn re-teams with Ryan Gosling (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) and composer Cliff Martinez (CONTAGION) to bring us an art house film with a capital A. The film moves at a snail’s pace, has a lead that utters about thirteen words of dialogue and is so stylized in its technical execution that one could be forgiven for thinking he’s walked into an underground snuff film (are there mainstream snuff films?).
But first, let’s get into a tiny bit of plot with an emphasis on the word “tiny” since the movie has almost no need for it other than an obligatory amount to set up a perimeter for the filmmakers’ artistic expressions. The film opens with an underground boxing ring that brothers Julian (Gosling) and Billy run. Billy leaves after the match and heads to a brothel. Some gruesome stuff happens and Billy ends up dead (this isn’t a spoiler –any two line synopsis of the film says as much). A Thai police lieutenant is involved and the s hits the fan. From there it snowballs into a giant cluster f of tit-for-tat revenge, vicious violence and expressionism (dang you, Refn!). Julian’s mom Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) comes to Thailand to take her son’s body back home but can’t help urge her surviving son to seek bloody revenge. Despite some of the most gore I’ve seen on this side of a torture porn film, her performance is the biggest shocker of the film. She’s cold, creepily lustful, and manipulative to the point where I have no doubt her character would be a diagnosed sociopath. Poor Julian. She torments him and he obliges her. She is perhaps the worst mother to have mommy issues for.
Through meticulously staged mise en scene (yikes!) Refn conjures a sense of impending doom whose priority is to suffocate the audience. He does this while simultaneously calling attention to his methods (think Brechtian – I’ll get you one day, Winding Refn!) In simple terms the film is a cat and mouse chase (or rather deliberate saunter) where bystanders’ body parts are collateral damage. As the film’s run time ekes through so does a building suspense. The movie not only feels like a personal hell tailor-made for its characters but through the use of ubiquitous red lighting (it really is everywhere all the time) it looks like it too. The only foreigners we see are white men who have come to Thailand to take advantage of the corruption and desperation. They have creature comforts but cannot be too happy with their exploitative ways. There is an uneasy truce with the local authorities but the aforementioned lieutenant sees that a line has been crossed. He is a mythical grim reaper equipped with what could only be described as a magic sword (culturally appropriate scythe?) that appears only when he needs to exact his brand of justice. Refn isn’t interested in plausibility. The sword appears because the lieutenant has deemed that that is the moment his victims should see his wrath and boom, it appears. A lot of the film traffics in these sort of artistic liberties. The film’s world is sort of like a super messed up version Alice in Wonderland. The audience I saw it with regretted following the filmmakers’ down the rabbit hole.
Refn presents a movie very much set in its location. It not only takes place in Thailand but its cast and extras are mostly Thai people, its culture is front and center, even the credits are in Thai. Correction, it’s Thai from the perspective of a foreigner, a western male to be more specific. Everything presented is a little off: the motivations of the characters, the shot selection, the art directions, the lighting (god, the lighting!) and what will be most apparent, the acting. It’s all very expressionistic in that Refn and company want to conjure a specific feeling in the audience while watching the film rather than get lost in the plot. This must be the case because so much of the decisions on display pull the audience out of the narrative, the affected acting being one of them. Very little is said in the entire movie where much communication is told through darting eyes or longing expressions. It’s as if the movie is asking the audience to examine the characters on display and comment on how lost foreigners can be in a land they don’t care to understand.
Cliff Martinez’s score compliments the investigation of this transgression. Its hypnotic synths and strings sounds lull the audience into an opiated state while the movie goes about its nihilistic business all around them. It’s as if the filmmakers want the audience to fall into a vegetative state to mirror the place of the foreigners while simultaneously reflect on the their comeuppance for taking advantage of desperate people. All this might be a fool’s errand considering most people in the theater were expecting “DRIVE set in Asia” and they got a film essay wrapped in deceptive marketing. If you’re up for a mise en scene masterclass (there’s that word again!) assigned by Professor Refn then enjoy. Although, “enjoy” might not be the right word.
Oh, and Kristin Scott Thomas says “cum dumpster.”
Final Score: 7.5/10 (give it a shot)