Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: "Only God Forgives" is an Unforgivable Mess

Left to right: Yayaying Rhata Phongam and Ryan Gosling
In 2011, director Nicolas Winding Refn gained an unprecedented amount of overnight success. With the help of Ryan Gosling, he created a beautiful, poetic look at Los Angeles in a genre-bending tale of violence known as Drive. While it bombed at the box office and failed to garner much respect at the Oscars, it did end up as one of the most iconic depictions of cool for the modern generation with an equally infectious Cliff Martinez score. With Refn's follow-up and the second collaboration with Gosling, is it possible for the duo to strike lightning twice, or is Drive one of those rare success stories?

To put it bluntly, Refn is a great filmmaker. Even if you took out Drive and focused on his older work, you have Pusher and Bronson: two films that are so bright and so violent that at very least, this was a voice to watch out for. Maybe it is due to him being color-blind, but it helps for him to create beautiful textures that pop out and are rarely disassociated with other filmmakers. His work is poetic, almost serving as a tone poem in the guise of a narration. In fact, it is a surprise that Drive was so successful because like Harmony Korine with Spring Breakers, it only necessarily succeeds because it is a fully realized piece of oddity. 

That doesn't mean that the rest isn't great. Bronson is Refn's first sign of greatness and the moment that Tom Hardy should have officially been on your radar. The only problem is that among all of these established films is Valhalla Rising, which is a departure of sorts from Refn's narrative style. It has all of the visual flare, but little in the way of story. Many dislike it for that alone. It isn't a surprise that Only God Forgives was scheduled to be made after this, as they almost feel like kissing cousins, though Refn's latest is probably his worst.

The story of Julian (Gosling) as he travels the underground crime scene of Bangkok to fight Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and dealing with a prostitute (Yayaying Rhata Phongam) and his foul-mouthed mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) is as gritty as it comes. As the trailers suggested, Gosling does wanna fight and boy does his face get beaten to a pulp. However, that is only the beginning of the film's violent crimes. Chang is a psychopathic police officer who at many points disembowels people in gruesome, unflinching ways that are only topped with karaoke performances. It is unnerving at points and it should leave a bad taste in your mouth.

The fact that every character in the story is unlikable isn't the issue. It is the lack of strong motive that derails the story fast. Considered to be deep into Catholic symbolism, it inverts these concepts with violent, profane takes that aren't religious at all. It isn't entirely sure why its characters exist other than to fight. With limited dialogue and a lot of atmospheric scenes, there isn't much to understand about these characters. It is a universe that thinks that literal eye poking is a great way to solve problems. There's probably symbolism, but here Refn sacrifices it for visuals.

The visuals in the story are troubling as well. The cinematography begins in a deep, dark universe that is heavily dim save for some vibrant lights. It makes the film hard to watch and distracts from the story. As it advances, the scenery becomes more gorgeous as the pallets begin using bright dominant colors that are a reminder to the director's artistic skills. These are gorgeous shots that fill up the frame nicely. In fact, they manage to do so at points that substitute for the character's lack of depth and keeps the story from feeling like a total waste. Still, this is a movie best enjoyed in still imagery with the soundtrack blaring to fully appreciate what it does right.

The saving grace of the film is definitely Cliff Martinez, whose score manages to top Drive in almost every way. Capturing the style of music in Bangkok, it creates this authentic, atmospheric score that adds aggression and emphasizes tension. It is also at times meditative and turns the scene from being visually pleasant to something so atmospheric, it is bliss. You could feel the wind ripping through a hallway with this score playing. Along with the Stoker soundtrack, this is easily one of my favorites for 2013. Almost every piece of music serves a place in the film and is immediately memorable. Where Drive was somber, Only God Forgives chooses to amp it up, just as if a fight will break out at any moment.

Refn cannot make a bad-looking movie. However, he can make a bad movie. While it can be appreciated the artistic, original craft that went into making this, it is essentially a hollow tale that wastes Gosling's talent and mistakes disgusting behavior for interesting character traits. Even at 90 minutes, it is a slow ride of disturbance that leads you nowhere. As stated in a previous post, this was one of my most anticipated films of the year and like Trance before it, style trumps story in a depressingly forgettable way. It is one thing if a terrible director made this, but one of high quality? Many will try to defend this as a mistaken, meditative piece of genius, but for me, it is just exploitative violence that juices up monotony, and even that not exceptionally.

Vithaya Pansringarm
It is obvious, but let me establish now: no, this film doesn't stand a chance at all at a Best Picture nomination. Where Drive had artistic merit all around, this doesn't have enough to work. Drive COULD have stood a chance simply because it was art with a lot of familiar cast players and a beautiful portrayal of Los Angeles. Here, Bangkok looks nice, but it is dark and violent, which is essentially why I feel that Drive failed to make the final cut. Even the proposition that Albert Brooks should have been a Best Supporting Actor nominee seems more plausible than pandering the idea that this should get a single Oscar nomination.

Ryan Gosling is probably turning in the worst performance of his career in the past five years with this film. It isn't that he does anything too embarrassing. It is that he doesn't do anything memorable. He has barely any dialogue and barely any motion that serves the story. It could just be that the story is gratuitously annoying and makes no sense. If Gosling stands any chance at an Oscar nomination, and I hope he does, it should be for his excellent performance in The Place Beyond the Pines, which if people must pin something as a Drive 2, it is that but with a better story.

I hope that Refn and Gosling will work together again because I believe that this was just a very bad mistake. I believe that there's enough artistic merit to keep me from entirely writing it off. Gosling continues to be one of the prime actors who can play silent heroes very well when given a good script. Also, Refn doesn't make ugly movies, which is beneficial to why he still deserves a chance. Even if critics aggregate sight Rotten Tomatoes pins the film at an abysmal 34%, it is still a marvelous failure that may leave many annoyed, but its ambition is enough to keep me from calling it a complete failure.

One last time, I would love to mention that Cliff Martinez's score is brilliant and is one of the shining features of the film. While Martinez would need a lot of momentum to get this recognized, I would love to see it in contention for Best Original Score. Numerous tracks have vibrant personalities and more energy than anything heard so far this year. The only handicap is that the film itself is awful and forgettable, thus the score will drown with it. Majority of Best Original Score nominees come from films that are also dominantly in the race or in the Best Picture category. This stands little chance. After all, if The Master couldn't make it, what odds does this have?

Does Only God Forgives failure mark the downfall of anyone's career? Is the soundtrack capable of breaking away as a hit? Is this film destined to be a mistaken gem by OCD fans in 10 years in a way worse than Drive supporters?

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