Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Is "Only God Forgives" Too Violent for an Oscar Nomination?

Ryan Gosling
For people speculating the Oscars, it has been a rough summer. With exception to Fruitvale Station, there haven't been any definite selections. Maybe it is from the bloated output of franchise sequels and remakes. It could just be a lackluster year where Steven Spielberg correctly identified the collapse of blockbuster entertainment. Still, as July starts to wind down, we enter a more enticing season of original fare including The World's End, Elysium, and director Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to the iconic Drive known as Only God Forgives with Ryan Gosling. Opening this Friday, is this film able to break the trend of Gosling films getting ignored, or will this just be reprise of Drive?

As readers should know, I love Ryan Gosling and think that he is overdue for an Oscar nomination. He had his chance with the masterpiece that was Blue Valentine, but missed out. There were even arguments when Drive's sole nomination was for a technical field. Still, this is looking to be a potential year of bouncing back for him. From his solid performance in The Place Beyond the Pines to a potential Terrence Malick film later this year (though hold skepticism if To the Wonder was any foreshadowing), he continues to be the art house darling who doesn't say a lot, but still wins you over.

With that said, I loved Drive and while upon multiple viewings, I understand the film's downfall in regards to Oscar statues. While it was heavily ominous thanks largely to a Cliff Martinez score, there were moments of hyper-violence that would seem off putting. It was the coolest thing on the market, except for the mainstream audience and that one Fast Five fan. Even Albert Brooks, who seemed a lock for Best Supporting Actor, missed out to Jonah Hill for Moneyball, most likely because of said violence. Watching the trailer for Only God Forgives, I get a strange mix of excitement, but also feel ready to face the cries of Refn's loving fan base:

According to IMDb, the plot is:
"Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok's criminal underworld, sees his life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother's recent death."
Not exactly the film that the Academy will go for. If people speculate that Drive lost points for being violent, this looks like a far more extreme take on it. Its first poster featured a bruised up Ryan Gosling and the trailer ends with him saying "Wanna fight?" For all of the artistic flair sure to be placed in the film, the violence is going to be the biggest detractor. Refn has always been somewhat of a violent filmmaker. Films like Pusher and Bronson reflect this attitude. It is admirable that he is making work that is distinctly his own, though it is also a shame that it also detracts voters from recognizing the craft.

I will try to avoid making this into a Nicolas Winding Refn love-fest for the rest of the post, but it is hard to give strong speculation for this film at the Academy without recognizing that this stands to have the same fate as Drive. Personally, in terms of Gosling and a nomination, my money has been firmly placed on The Place Beyond the Pines simply because it is an elegant epic about fathers and sons. It is more poignant, artful, and has an ambitious story line. Gosling even turns in a rather great performance, even if he has yet to top Blue Valentine. Here, he may face the risk of redundancy. Just like Leonardo diCaprio, one of the handicaps is that Gosling gets pegged as playing the same character every time. While it also may hurt that these artsier films and not quite as appealing, the notion that he plays the same type is a motive that plagues everyone except Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis. But the argument could be made that he elevates the subject and thus only makes his performance seem more understated.

At this point, I doubt that Only God Forgives will stand a chance at the bigger awards. I am sure that it will be too violent for Best Picture, even with the sliding 5-10 slots. Martin Scorsese is a similar director in that his films deal with shady, violent characters, yet somehow he received numerous nominations, including Goodfellas. The large reason is that he became established over time before he won. While his first nomination for Best Picture came with Taxi Driver, which definitely is comparably violent to Drive, it also is because it came in a time when auteur film making was more prominent. Films like The French Connection and The Godfather were winning. Nowadays, considerably tamer films like Argo and The Artist are winning. Violence still sneaks into the category (Django Unchained), but it is from established artists. Sadly, Refn hasn't quite built the reputation that Quentin Tarantino or Scorsese have built, if just because his films meet at the corner of art and violence in ways that aren't quite fully appreciated yet.

Kristen Scott Thomas
There is an off chance that I could be wrong about it all. However, I still believe that Gosling won't get a nomination here. Let's focus on what I do believe it stands a shot with. As I stated in my piece on The Place Beyond the Pines, it feels like Gosling films tend to get one Oscar nomination each. There are a few categories that upon viewing the trailer, I would love to say that it stands a strong chance in.

The most notable is Best Cinematography. Just like Spring Breakers before it, this is yet another film that manages to turn an average setting into a moody light fixture. There is something poetic and gorgeous about the trailer simply because of the lighting. It adds elements to the moment and depending on how it plays in the film, it increases drama. That is what great cinematography should do. While most films that will potentially get nominated may use more traditional lighting, I suggest that we don't ignore someone who knows how to use practical effects to display mood.

The other is Best Original Score. I have yet to hear it, but I am a firm believer that Refn and composer Cliff Martinez are matches made in heaven when it comes to creating tone. Somehow Drive got disqualified from the category years ago, and unless there's something stopping this one, I can't see what is stopping it. Martinez has been on a roll this year after a rather excellent collaboration with Skrillex on Spring Breakers, if just for this brilliant instrumentation. His work is very understated and almost serves more as a pulse to the film. Still, based on the music of the trailer, I dare argue it would be more ambitious and fun than Drive. There is an off chance that my love of niche scores is a downfall, but I'm hoping that it fares better than The Master, which got snubbed. The disadvantage is that Martinez has yet to receive an Oscar nomination and unless the music stands out, there's a good chance it won't happen here.

I have high hopes for Only God Forgives, even if it is not my most anticipated Gosling film of 2013. I expect to have the same excitement that I did watching Drive and feel that thrill that maybe this will be the year when art makes it into the Oscars. There's a strong chance that it's only a fool's thought, but maybe with the Academy starting to get more lax with their nominations, they will recognize more bizarre selections. The year is still up in the air, so who knows if this will be one of the better or worse years. While my money as of now is on the latter, Only God Forgives is that small beacon of hope that we can get the voting right, provided that it is actually a good movie.

Is Only God Forgives going to get Ryan Gosling back into the Oscar race? Will Cliff Martinez finally be able to turn his understated music into a nominee? What does the Academy have against violence?

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