dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Holy Shit! What the hell was that all about?
What a strange, pointless film.
Well, maybe it’s not pointless, in that its point is to be a very lurid kind of film, very similar to other kinds of lurid, nasty films that this same prick of a director has made in the past. Refn has made, to date, films as stylised, nasty, pointless and quease-inducing as the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive
All nasty, all distinctive (in that they look like the work of a few other directors, rather than most other directors), but hard to really pin down, or, in my case, like. Drive, his last one, was beloved by a lot of people who have the singular distinction and blessing of not being me. I really couldn't see what the fuss was all about. I will agree that a non-verbal Ryan Gosling could be a good thing if you didn't like the Canadian way he talked, but I like Gosling as much when he's talking as when he's not.
I knew that Only God Forgives would be something of a trawl, a low-life transgressive foray into the dark underbelly of Refn's brain, and I expected to hate it, hearing how pointlessly lurid and violent it was.
I didn't expect to actually enjoy it. I don't really 'enjoy' Nicolas Winding Refn movies: I endure them. But this one clicked for me, and I think the only reason is that its grand absurdity and neon drowned scenes worked.
And I might have been slightly inebriated when I watched it, but don't tell anyone. And by 'slightly inebriated', I could mean that a heroic volume of alcohol might have been consumed prior and during my viewing of this dirty pimp of a movie.
Only God Forgives entirely transpires in Bangkok. Why Bangkok? Because it's a beautiful, sensitive construct that appreciates and celebrates the unique qualities of Thai people and culture?
Oh hell no. Because Refn wanted the story set somewhere where underage prostitutes being raped and murdered, people settling conflicts with kickboxing and a cop killing people with a sword would look commonplace.
So, there's this guy called Julian (Ryan Gosling). He runs, I don't know, a muay thai boxing ring? And he has a brother (Gordon Brown), a lunatic who rapes and kills a prostitute.
This happens fairly early, and it's an awful thing to happen to anyone, really, no matter where you might be or whatever your employment might be.
You could understand that this might provoke the local constabulary into action, and it does, but it’s not the kind of action you associate with even a corrupt police force.
A very strange karaoke singing, sword wielding cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the one that swings into action, motivated by a desire to correct the imbalance, the wound in nature created by this crime. This lieutenant Chang puts together a scenario whereby the father of the poor girl gets to exact his revenge upon Julian's brother, beating him to death.
And then all is right with the world. But Chang is not, seemingly motivated by compassion, or sympathy for the victim alone, or for her father. In fact, Chang's vengeance extends to the father as well, both for having killed his daughter's murderer and for putting his daughter in that position in the first place.
In fact, even having watched the film, I couldn't tell you what motivates him at all. For most of it he seems like an awkward, middle-aged embodiment of Vengeance itself, a chubby avenging angel, with no thinking behind his actions, just that the action itself must occur.
In some ways that seem comical to me (but probably not to other people), he's a pretty funny character, but a film in which so many people die brutally, it's probably not appropriate to point that out.
Again, for most of the flick, Chang seems like an unstoppable force rather than a human protagonist, but they make the mistake / right decision to humanise him further at the end by giving him human things to worry about (a family to threaten), so he just seems like just another fucking cop.
There's a scene whose provenance I won't explain, where Julian and this guy Chang step into a kickboxing ring. The scene doesn't go the way you would assume, since Ryan Gosling towers over the chap, and is about 50 years younger than him. I'm not sure what the exact meaning or purpose behind it was, but the effect it had on me was to make me laugh out loud, something I did a fair few times throughout the flick, because I couldn't believe what was happening.
It's hard to convey in a review just how insane a film is beyond saying something like "This flick was pretty insane." It was insane in that at absolutely no stage did I have any idea what was about to happen next. Some stuff is preconfigured, or foreshadowed, or whatever you call it when Nicolas Winding Refn shows you what's likely to happen to his characters later in a flick, then have it happen to the characters, but you're unsure what the fuck just happened, and it still left me fairly amused and fairly perplexed. I can usually predict down to the very next word of dialogue and even shot angles in most flicks, but I'm completely at sea with a flick like this.
It's not an entirely unpleasant sensation, but sometimes it can fill me with irritation or abject rage, rage not against the dying of the light but against shitty storytelling.
I 'enjoyed' not knowing what would happen, and being, frankly, astounded at much that transpired. 'Shocked' wouldn't even cover some of the stuff that happens in this flick, in its long, strange crawl to a bloody end.
This might sound solely as a transgressive vigilante exploitation kind of flick, something like Ichi the Killer or Dirty Harry combined, but it's nothing of the sort. I'm not completely sure what it is about other than that intensely Oedipal relationships between a mother and her son eventually results in many multiple murders, but it could be about lots of other things.
As the cop begins acting out his biblical correction of what happened, Julian's mother arrives, making an already tense situation catastrophic. It is virtually impossible to describe just how nasty Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) is in this, and it's less about anything she does and more about what she says.
She's pure, delightful, evil. I have absolutely no basis for this, but I had a feeling that Thomas based at least part of her persona on Madonna. I'm not sure why, it just came to me as I watched her, terrified and fragile. She demands vengeance of her own for her beloved rapist/murderer son Billy, dismissing Billy's crimes in the most callous way possible.
See, Crystal clearly loved Billy. A lot. I don't know how often or how frequently, but she clearly loved him at least a few times. How else, and why else would she bring up just how well-endowed he was to Julian? Why else would she mention what a powerful lover he was?
Julian's not exempt from this, because she knows enough to know that Julian is a pale shadow of a man compared to Billy. Either I'm completely wrong, or she knows just what to remind Julian of in order to get him to do what she wants, and, also clearly, Julian's killed for her before, however reluctantly.
Yes, I know it sounds absurd, but any of this stuff that would give Freud himself nightmares pales in comparison to what happens in the end, when Julian tries to say his final goodbye to his mother.
Shocking? Yes, most definitely. Lurid, sleazy, scummy? Definitely, soaked as it is in strong primary colours, neon-lit gaudier than what I imagine the gaudiest brothel to look like. It tells us nothing about Thailand, Bangkok, sex slavery, sex between decent humans, the drug trade, or what it's like being an agent of vengeance. It does show us what it's like to have a ruthless gorgon of a mother, though, so for those of you who don't know what that could be like, live through these characters and see for yourselves.
I did feel somewhat dirty after watching this, but there's no denying that I found it compelling and audacious, somehow. All of the actors in the flick (except for Kristen Scott Thomas) wander around like they have absolutely no idea what's going on, and somehow it's not a bad thing, and somehow it still resulted in something that caused my mouth to drop open a few times, and to make me laugh, despite completely not being even vaguely a comedy.
Only God Forgives is ultimately a horribly violent, arsebackwards, somewhat entertaining movie, where even the title doesn't make any sense.
God forgives absolutely nothing in this flick, no-one and nothing, least of all the audience.
7 times methinks your love for your mother, Julian, is somewhat misplaced out of 10
"So, tell me, Mai. What line of work are you in?"
- "I'm an entertainer."
"An entertainer? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?" - such language, and from a mother, too - Only God Forgives