Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Love: Only God Forgives

There's a part of me that hopes Only God Forgives does not slip into American wide release. The audience of leather-jacketed Parisians packed into my theater seemed to give the film a chilly response, piling out before the credits had begun to roll, scoffing at its stilted, sparse dialogue, disappointed by its concluding scenes.  Everyone had come, of course, hoping for another Drive and looking to ogle Ryan Gosling. I suspect they'll do the same in America, though perhaps it's a film best left in the art house; there for those who knowingly seek out its horrors, stowed from those who will virulently loathe it. Though there's much to actively (and aesthetically) appreciate about Only God Forgives, there's perhaps significantly more to pull even the most indiscriminate of viewers towards a spasm, knee-jerk declaration of the film's own ineptitude and decrepitude.  Five days after watching it, I have decided to push against some of my own mixed emotions on the film and list it as a troubled, minorly flawed, very visceral success. Where director Nicolas Winding Refn hit it big with Drive's blissful, brutal collision of genre 'car' pictures and burned-out indies, here his influences meet in a way that doesn't quite mesh, but which is somehow fascinating nonetheless.
As I watched Only God Forgives, any number of other films and disparate sources came to mind, most from the far end of the average person's measure of 'disturbing' cinema. There are countless instances of a saturated Lynchian surrealism, call-backs to dizzying sequences in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, to brutal Korean crime dramas (I Saw the Devil, anyone?), the revenge sequences of Chan-Wook Park, Stanley Kubrick (this film shares its cinematographer with The Shining), Freudian psychoanalysis, martial arts films, and - most interestingly, in my opinion- Shakespearean and Grecian drama. If you can imagine Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus modernized, fractured, and centered, perhaps, on Tamora and her sons, it might look quite a bit like this. Refn himself dedicates the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and while the connection to the Chilean master's work may not be immediately apparent, the way each shot simmers in its own atmosphere and picks, relentlessly, at its own thematic overtones makes its dream life more active than its tangible story. The film is entombed in its own drive towards symbolism, and struggles to make excessively brutal acts of violence fit at its jagged edges.  Only God Forgives is an Oedipal fever dream that seems to strive towards using the visceral to reach towards the cerebral, to conflate space and time with dreamlike bouts of gore, but which may succeed only for those willing to put the effort in to think and talk about it.

The story here, as we come to understand it, is outlined more clearly in the press release synopsis than it is in the film itself.  Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American criminal hiding in plain site in seedy Bangkok. He and his despicable brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a kickboxing ring as a front for their malicious mother Crystal's (Kristin Scott Thomas) drug-smuggling empire. When Billy turns up dead after raping and murdering a teenage girl, Crystal descends on the city in all her garish mob-wife finery to collect his corpse and carry out the revenge she believes Julian incapable of enacting.  The hitch there, of course, is that their target is also their hunter: Detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the rather merciless 'god' of the title. He has the power to forgive, yes, but his brand of justice is a little bit more Old Testament.  Much of Only God Forgives blurs in a slightly disconnected fugue state powered by the raw intensity of its pigments and its jarring, incomprehensible violence. The dialogue -when we get it- is at times laughably over-the-top, pushing its explicitness at best towards camp and at worst towards scenery chewing. Burke delivers it the worst, Scott Thomas the best as she plays deliciously against type.  Crystal's dialogue tends towards the darkly, acerbically comic (though her chilly "I'm sure he had his reasons" hits with a loud note of audience discord) that allows the viewer to understand the deliberate, muscular purpose of the dialogue's sparse stylization. The same cannot be said of several of the other English lines, but thankfully, there's not much chatter here.  Instead (as with Drive), we receive the story primarily through immaculately rendered images and \a rumbling score (from Cliff Martinez) that punches through to the pit of your stomach to fill you with dread.  
I mentioned earlier that I read the film as partially rooted in a largely classical revenge drama, a sort of hybrid of the tales of Oedipus and Titus Andronicus (with some Hamlet thrown in for good measure), and this is perhaps the most satisfying (and accessible) way I've found of grappling with a story that's otherwise a bit frustrating. Yes, you can break this down to pay attention only to crucial formal elements, and yes: there are any number of textbooks and term papers yet to be written about what Refn is able to communicate via near silent images alone. What we find in Only God Forgives is something ferociously primal painted in a rich color palette that weighs heavy on our intake system. Refn pushes at our limits here, at times drifting towards the realm of Von Trier to draw out torturous scenes just two steps too far towards the gratuitous. In his hands, on the screen, all the violence and sickening incestuous themes seem new. There's a whiff of that 'fall of Rome' thing to the film; the sense that we're too deep into the minds of the sociopaths, that this violence is more violent than what we've seen before, that this sexuality is more depraved than the stories that have come before it. While the reason for that is perhaps the simple absence of a redemptive character, the irony is that the film's acts and themes are positively ancient.  In a bizarre twist, Only God Forgives is perhaps a more valid example of truly "old school" storytelling than anything else. Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Marlowe; they knew how to deliver a revenge saga.  What Refn does here is something similar, but with the verbage transmogrified and manifest. It's an old, old story stripped of its stage limitations and updated in a way that's exciting.  This is how you use film as a medium.  This is what you do when you take old stories and do them up in fancy, glowing trappings.  This is what it looks like when you can rely on gore and revenge without wit or pandering to the audience. We can see it now. And for many, it will not be pleasant.  
Only God Forgives won't be released until mid-July here in the states, which means it's really much too early to subject people to a full Freudian critical analysis of the film's twisted psychology, but much can and will be made of the story's distinctly Oedipal nature. Julian has killed his father, we learn, and seems emotionally married to the idea of his mother. He's silently devoted to her in a way that Refn manifests in a disturbing, slow reaching visual pairing.  At one point, after a thorough public chastising, he's asked why he allows Crystal to treat him so miserably.  His answer, plainly, is "because she's my mother."  That's the long and short of it, for Julian, and he is possessed by her malignant influence.

Gosling seems to do very little with his character, but it's evident that what Refn needs him to do is to establish a surface placid enough for images and ideas to be projected upon.  What we watch, ultimately, is an emptying of Gosling as pop culture 'personality' to the point that he's unrecognizable: a blank slate for pummeling, bleeding, and suppressing the familial id.  In a bizarre way, he is transformed and made invisible. Crystal attempts to puppet his character, assigning him the role of son, husband, guardian, servant, and father even as she demeans him repeatedly by holding the wretched Billy on a pedestal. Though Julian has, supposedly, killed his biological father (likely at the behest of his mother), it's unclear whether he has truly assumed that paternal role.  He is haunted in his dreams by images of a wrathful Detective Chang wielding his samurai sword, and those visions of his punishment interfere, repeatedly, with the erotically suggestive depictions of his desire to return to the womb. Within rooms of deep, dizzying red he is forever attempting to suppress his urges to reach back into the female form, forever combating them by imagining the severing of his own limbs by a furious 'father'.  The colors, the atmosphere, and the themes all carry a tremendous weight, and the film feels heavy, burdensome, and somehow personally troubling. We are being punished too, but for what exactly? For wishing it into existence?

Audience relationship aside, the questions the film wrestles with are many. What is this punishment?  How can we read this subconscious turn?  What happens when Oedipus does not succumb to fate? When the pins are used for something else?  When Titus Andronicus avenges someone else's daughter? When one of  Tamora the Goth's sons may be repentant against the spirit of revenge? It's some heavy-handed shit, yes, and certainly not for general audiences.  The plot is thin, the violence oppressively senseless, the acting often rigid, but there's something about it that makes you want to talk about it...and to keep talking.

If your heart and stomach are faint, you may need to watch Only God Forgives through your fingers. When you do so, as you probably will, try to appreciate the film's luxurious use of color. Shot on location in Bangkok, there's a hypnotic array of rich greens, reds, blues, and pinks to take in in a setting so foreign it becomes a sort of dreamscape.  The visuals alone are worth a fair shake, though the film is certainly one that I can't recommend to most, and which I have to apologize profusely for dragging my family to in the midst of our travels. All the slicing and gouging felt like the distant past once the film ended, but my poor mother was justifiably angry, as I'm sure many others will be.  All I can offer as solace is a reminder that if this had been Oedipus or Titus Andronicus, things could always be worse.  At least here, you see, nobody gets ground up, baked into a pie, and fed to their parents...


  1. A very interesting read. I'm intrigued.

    1. I can't wait to see how the internet generally responds to this movie...

  2. I loved this movie, although I always love visceral movies. I'm not really the typical audience, but I think people are warming to that (again)? I feel like that's a trend that is happening somewhere. In music videos, maybe.


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