Wednesday, July 17, 2013


If Drive is like cocaine...then this is like really good acid - Nicolas Winding Refn (Brooklyn Academy Of Music, 2013)

Jackie Brown. Trouble Every Day. Dogville. The Brown Bunny. Inland Empire. These are all GREAT modern films (in my opinion) that were initially hated, dismissed, misunderstood and/or underrated partially due to the fact that they came after such popular & highly acclaimed works that were intimidating acts to follow (Pulp Fiction, Beau Travail, Dancer In The Dark, Buffalo 66 & Mulholland Drive, respectively). Only God Forgives will probably see the same fate but the difference here is that it will probably remain hated & misunderstood for a long time.
Normally I hate movie reviews that constantly reference the filmmaker's previous work over and over but its kinda difficult not too with this one. Drive & Only God Forgives exist in the same violent, synthesized, neon-lit, redish tinted, criminal underworld. I honestly loved this movie very much but I don’t see people instantly falling in love with it like they did with Drive (sure Drive had it's detractors but generally speaking that movie is loved a lot more than its hated). 
On more than one occasion at the screening last night there were moments in Only God Forgives when the audience would laugh at a scene that was CLEARLY supposed to be taken seriously so that should tell you guys something...

While Drive was directly influenced by the styles of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese & Takeshi Kitano (all filmmakers who have more than a few strong similarities & connections between each other) Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film draws inspiration from sources that don’t exactly go together. Only God Forgives is a cross between the world of Stanley Kubrick (the polarizing hallway shots, people staring intensely at stuff, bold colors & odd moments of silence) and the world of straight to VHS/late night cable action movies from the early 90's that usually featured; Jeanne Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, a pre-Crow Brandon Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa or some combination of those four actors (the plot, the overuse of slow-motion, the kickboxing/martial arts angle, the lone white guy in Asia, etc). Personally, I think what Refn did here was great. I grew up on those bad action/martial arts films as a kid and today I love cinema that falls under the "art house" label so the combination of these two cinematic worlds is pretty awesome to me. But my perspective and taste is unique. Most people don’t place Stanley Kubrick & Dolph Lundgren on the same pedestal like I do so they're gonna have a tough time getting through Only God Forgives.

Only God Forgives - Refn (L), The Shining - Kubrick (R)
Stanley Kubrick isn't the first & only filmmaker to shoot hallways in such an intriguing way but I think you all get the point I'm trying to drive home in the images above. Nicolas Winding Refn even used Eyes Wide Shut Cinematographer; Larry Smith for Only God Forgives (Smith also shot Fear X & Bronson). 

That glossy/high art/sleek Michael Mann influence that I love so much is still evident in this. Only God Forgives is darkly lit & gritty yet at the same time smooth & sleek just like Thief, Manhunter & Collateral. The way Michael Mann shoots bars & night clubs in Miami Vice, Collateral & Heat is seen in Only God Forgives as well. Refn kinda blurs that line between "good guy"/the cop & "bad guy"/the criminal just like Mann usually does in his work - The relationship between Ryan Gosling/"The Criminal" & Vathaya Panssringarm/"The Cop" in Only God Forgives is pretty similar to the relationships between Deniro & Pacino in Heat or Johnny Depp & Christian Bale in Public Enemies. There's this strange fascination/respect between the criminal and the law. All throughout Only God Forgives Ryan Gosling looks at his nemesis ("Chang") with curiosity, fear & intrigue.
Nicolas Winding Refn also draws upon those little moments that often go unnoticed in Michael Mann's work. In Miami Vice there's a brief moment when Crocket/Collin Farell stares off in to the sea when he should be paying attention to the interrogation his fellow cops are giving to an informant...

Miami Vice - Mann (2006)

There's tons of moments like that in Only God Forgives where Gosling is staring off at something with this blank intensity which can be traced right back to Kubrick as he's the king of that intense stare shot...

Only God Forgives - Refn (L), Eyes Wide Shut - Kubrick (M), Manhunter - Mann (R)
There's also an obvious touch of Gaspar Noe (another filmmaker heavily influenced by Kubrick, yet closer to Refn's generation) in Only God Forgives from the opening credits to the violence we see all throughout the film (Gaspar Noe actually helped on the production of this movie for a few days and is listed in the credits). If Only God Forgives doesn't exist in the same universe as Drive, Collateral or Eyes Wide Shut, it definitely exists in the same universe as Noe's Enter The Void in terms of dreaminess and atmosphere.
But Kubrick, Mann and Noe aside - this is still very much a Nicolas Winding Refn film: Random violent outbursts, awkwardly quiet yet viscous antihero main characters, a synthesized film score and extremely slow moments. Refn even reused a lot of shots found in his older films within Only God Forgives...

Only God Forgives / Pusher 2
Only God Forgives / Pusher
Only God Forgives / Bronson
If you're like me and followed Nicolas Winding Refn's career prior to Drive you'd know that instant success is something pretty foreign to him, outside of the Pusher trilogy, so it isn't surprising that Only God Forgives has been getting negative reviews. This new film fits right in with just about all of Refn's pre-Drive/post-Pusher work - Fear X (2003) caused Refn to go bankrupt and forced him to make a film he didn’t really wanna make (Pusher 2) just to get out of debt. Valhalla Rising (2009) was falsely advertised as some kind of gladiator/fighting movie when in fact it was a slow, trippy, atmospheric art film which didn’t sit too well with a lot of movie goers who were expecting something else (although the film does maintain a small cult following that I am very much a part of). Bronson (2008), another recent cult film, was an instant hit with angry men who love violence and yelling, but other than that it split everyone else down the middle. It took me almost two years to even consider Bronson an "ok" film. Nicolas Winding Refn's career kinda mirrors that of Donald Cammell (White Of The Eye, Demon Seed, Wild Side, etc) except a lot less tragic and on a slightly larger scale. 

In the film Ryan Gosling plays "Julian" - a gangster son of a femme fatale named "Crystal" (played by Kristin Scott Thomas with the attitude of Donatella Versace mixed with Naomi Campbell in a blonde wig). 
After Julian's brother; Billy is killed at the order of "Chang" (a badass Thai police officer with a love for Karaoke) Crystal wants everyone responsible for Billy's death to pay. She seeks out her younger son Julian to take care of it but given their complicated mother/son relationship (along with the horrific crime Julian's brother committed to begin with), Julian initially refuses to take her orders. But after a series of events he suddenly changes his mind and challenges Chang to a fight in order to settle the score.

If you loved Drive there's no guarantee you'll enjoy Only God Forgives. Even the music, once again scored by Cliff Martinez, is a lot darker and less pop-sounding this time around.
Although slightly more sinister and even more quiet, Ryan Gosling's performance is somewhat similar to the character he played in Drive.
This is a pretty dark film. Chang is one of Refn's cruelest characters (he prefers a sword to a gun), there's multiple scenes where people get their hands and/or arms chopped off or cut in too at the drop of a hat and there's some SERIOUS incestuous undertones between Julian & Crystal. A lot of hype has been made about Kristen Scott Thomas' portrayal as the bitchy villainous femme fatale because she doesn't normally portray these kinds of characters but after her recent performance in Love Crime I don't find her portrayal as Crystal that far fetched.
Besides Crystal, all the other characters in this film barely speak (no, seriously). The spacing between the dialogue in Only God Forgives is so far apart at times that when someone finally does speak (usually delivering two or three words in a strange unemotional way) it almost catches you off guard. Once again, this is another aspect I found to be interesting but it's understandable if others aren't in to it.

Vathaya Panssringarm's portrayal as Chang was the most fascinating to me. If there's ever been a "badass" he's certainly it. In on scene he allows the father of a murdered underage prostitute to beat his daughters' killer to death. Then in an unexpected switch he cuts off the father's hand as punishment for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute in the first place (this is a very eye for an eye kind of film). It should be noted that even though Vathaya Panssringarm is listed as Chang in the credits, no one ever actually addresses him by his name at any point in the film which adds to his mystique. He just kinda glides through the film as a sword wielding angel of vengeance...

My enjoyment of Only God Forgives is kinda bitter sweet. I loved it but I like feel once people see this when it opens (on Friday) I don’t think I'll be able to openly praise it without constantly hearing: "REALLY? You liked THAT?!" I'm sure there's a few folks out there who'll love it like I did but not many. 
This is a pretty existential story buried underneath a violent gangster movie yet it's understandable if some people find this film very flawed. There's quite a few random moments that may have some people going; "...huh?" (strange hallucination sequences, random karaoke scenes and aggressive moments that are totally uncalled for) plus the overall motivation of the characters is a little questionable at times.
But for some strange reason I loved almost everything about this movie. I just don’t know if I have the energy to defend it so I'm gonna quietly love it by myself like I do with Terrence Malick's recent work.
If you have the same kind of love for Showdown In Little Tokyo as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey and aren't bothered by the kinds of plot holes found in Michael Mann's films because they're so cool (something I struggle with) then chances are you'll enjoy this. However, if you like constant dialogue and for movies to make sense then you may wanna stay away from this.


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