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Only God Forgives: Prognosis? Pain

by Ethan Alter July 19, 2013 5:55 am
<i>Only God Forgives</i>: Prognosis? Pain

In a perverse act of audience-baiting, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling follow up their widely-liked auto-themed thriller Drive with Only God Forgives, a movie that actively seems to be trying to punish viewers who enjoyed their previous collaboration so much. "You liked Gosling's man-of-few-words character?" this film seems to be saying, "Well, here he's going to speak only four or five times." Or, "You loved the neon-lit cityscape of Los Angeles in Drive? Well, here we've shot the streets of Thailand through a bright, headache-inducing red filter that makes it resemble the seventh circle of Hell." Or: "You loved seeing Albert Brooks go bad? Well, here's Kristin Scott Thomas playing the world's worst mother." Or perhaps most of all: "You loved the slow, but confident pace of Drive's narrative? Well, here's a movie where absolutely nothing happens. Enjoy!"

I can only hope that Gosling and Refn had a grand old time making Only God Forgives, because watching it sure is a bore -- albeit a beautiful-looking bore, a description that could also be applied to roughly half of Gosling's performances to date. Pitched somewhere between Kubrick and Lynch, Only God Forgives possesses the same formal precision of A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut and the same what-the-hell-is-happening nightmarishness of Blue Velvet and Inland Empire. In theory, that combination should be spectacular, but in practice it's mostly not, largely because Refn lacks the flair for dark humor that runs underneath so much of those filmmakers' work. He tries -- good lord how he tries -- but the movie's comic overtures are as stilted as its nonexistent drama. There are laughs to be had here, but most of them are at the expense of the movie rather than inspired by it.

The plot, if you care, finds Gosling playing Julian, an American lowlife who has set up shop in Bangkok's seedy red-light district, where he oversees a Thai boxing club with the help of his deeply disturbed brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Then Billy goes and kills a teenage hooker, resulting in his own murder under the watch of ex-cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a demonic, apparently unstoppable death-dealer in the vein of Anton Chigurh. Though Julian appears disinterested in exploring the circumstances of his brother's death, the arrival of his ball-busting, foul-mouthed, likely-incestuous minded Mama (Scott Thomas) forces him to investigate further. After wandering through various scenes with the same stone-faced expression on his face, he eventually comes face-to-face with Chang and the stage appears set for a Kickboxer-like showdown that ends with one of the opponents reduced to a bloody pulp. But in this case, it's not the guy you'd think.

The Kickboxer comparison is actually apt because just as Drive functioned as a stylish homage to the L.A. crime movies of the '80s (think To Live and Die in L.A. and L.A. Takedown), Only God Forgives could be viewed as Refn's snarky send-up of the Cinema de Van Damme, which frequently involved a white expat coming to Asia and getting involved in criminal shenanigans that almost always ended in martial arts duels. The ultraviolence that's present throughout the movie (which includes severed arms, gruesome shootings and, in the most cringe-inducing scene, a guy having his eyes gouged out) complements that reading to a certain extent; for all their fisticuffs, Van Damme's films are fairly bloodless -- this one is awash in the sticky red stuff. Again, though, trying to guess what Refn might be up to with this endeavor is more intriguing than the actual movie he made. You can't accuse him of being sloppy; on the contrary, Only God Forgives is razor-sharp in its imagery and ultra-specific sensibility. It's a very deliberate act of provocation on its director's part, one designed to keep the audience off-guard and unsettled, but not in a way that's intended to be entertaining. If anything, Only God Forgives is anti-entertainment, which is its final "Eff you" to Drive fans. That movie seduced viewers with its style; this one wants to repulse them.

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