With my 4th move in as many years, and all of the issues it brings (setting up internet, cable, utilities, etc); my mom’s visit to Chicago; a house warming and other birthday and good bye parties; I simply could not find time to update The Blog of Big Ideas in July.
With all of that behind me, I now give you my first full film review of the month: Only God Forgives
Cast: Ryan Gosling (Julian), Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal), Vithaya Pansringarm (Chang)
Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Awash in neon reds, oranges and yellows, Julian (Ryan Gosling) appears silent, taciturn, expressionless and unflinching in a nameless strip club somewhere in the Far East. He seems present only physically, lost in his memories. His actions, from the moment he is introduced to us on screen, have a hint of remorse and guilt, but we can’t be sure. His loyalty to his family is true, but can he really do what they ask of him? And if he does, could he forgive himself?
Julian is Ryan Gosling’s latest role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, the follow-up to the almost-masterful Drive from 2011. In the latest partnership between the Danish director and the sought-after starlet, Gosling plays one of two brothers who run a boxing club that acts as a cover-up for a drug-dealing business. The actor plays him like a nearly silent observant, similar in disposition to his nameless stunt driver/bank robber in Drive. When his extroverted older brother finds himself in a lot of trouble, Julian feels he must seek revenge, not aware of the foe he is about to face.
The world Julian inhabits is quintessential Refn: full of bright colors punctuating a somber, almost dreadful atmosphere. The hand of the director is ever present, an uncompromising and harsher version of the genre-bending cinematic style that made Drive so unique just a couple of years ago.
To avoid comparing the two films is futile. Refn made conscious decisions so that everyone who is familiar with his previous effort recognizes a pattern and a style. Only God Forgives is Drive on steroids. Violence is front and center, no longer used sporadically, but generously and graphically, well worth an R rating.
The ineffectiveness of the film as a whole is by no means due to a lack of artistry or attention to detail. Quite the opposite. Only God Forgives is perhaps the most exacting and visually impressive demonstration by the talented Danish director. The problem lies on the purpose of the film, which is not much more than a refined glorification of violence driven by revenge that takes place in a world that is foreign, almost surreal, where people do not act like people, behaving instead as characters in a dystopian novel that follow a predetermined path.
The influence of martial arts films and culture is important. In fact, Only God Forgives has elements of satire and puristic violence that are typical of the genre (“pure” meaning switfly and without feeling). A crooked cop who thinks he is doing God’s work yields punishment with small carry-on swords and other types of torture devices that evoke the times of the Samurai.
The gratuitous violence could work if it were a film exclusively dedicated to it. However, Only God Forgives takes time to explore the psyche of its main characters, failing to acknowledge that these don’t have much humanity to show for.
Whereas Drive was driven by heart, sacrifice and a thirst for redemption, Only God Forgives is a lot more superficial, cynical in his view of humanity, perhaps completely disinterested in emotion, where style trumps substance.