This weekend in multiplexes, Ryan Reynolds has a double-hitter with R.I.P.D. and Turbo. R.I.P.D. costar Mary-Louise Parker also has a double this weekend, with the arrival of RED 2. The latter two movies have been getting panned left and right, and I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing either anyway. Turbo has been faring better, but I’m hesitant to try something that looks so derivative. The Conjuring has been getting surprisingly good reviews, but there’s something I simply have to try first.
Nicolas Winding-Refn has made quite an unpronouncable name for himself over the past few years. By way of Bronson and Drive, Refn endeared himself to cinephiles as a bold filmmaker with dazzling visual flair and uncommon skill with grisly ultraviolence. More importantly, Refn has shown himself to be diabolically clever at presenting violent stories in thoughtful and emotionally resonant ways. I don’t think anyone else would have thought to stage Bronson’s life as a sort of one-man show, and I’ve never seen a car chase like the careful and strategic one that kicks off Drive, yet Refn makes them both work beautifully.
So when Refn announced that his next film would be titled Only God Forgives, film-lovers already knew that we were in for a gory good time. The movie’s exotic Asian setting promised a unique visual style, and re-teaming with Ryan Gosling was so much more icing on the cake. As such, I was eager to go into this one completely blind, anxious to see what this wonderful filmmaker had to offer.
I really need to stop doing that.
I don’t rightly know if I can recount the premise of this film in any accurate way, but I’ll give it a try. Our stage is set in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok. This is where we meet Billy (Tom Burke), a boxing club manager who runs a drug dealing operation on the side. The story begins when he rapes and murders an underage prostitute. The case falls to Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a detective who works as judge, jury, and executioner according to his own brand of justice. Chang brings in the victim’s father and locks him in a room with Billy, to kill the bastard who murdered his daughter. Chang then cuts the father’s hand off. Because justice.
These events call the attention of Billy’s mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Very quickly, we learn that Crystal is even more of a vindictive criminal shitstain than her son ever was (“He killed and raped a 16-year old girl.” Crystal: “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.”). So Crystal declares war, she and Chang are locked in a vicious cycle of revenge, the bodies start piling up, and no one cares.
If you reread the plot synopsis, you might notice a suspicious lack of Ryan Gosling. What role does he have to play in all of this? Well, so far as I can tell, he doesn’t. Take the guy out of the film and precious little would be lost except for a couple dozen headaches. Gosling plays Julian, Billy’s brother and business partner. He’s unique in that he has no sympathy for the guy who got caught with a dead girl. All well and good, except that he’s too weak to actually do much of anything except sit on the sidelines. Even when he actually does something, his actions end up doing more harm than good to the narrative. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Additionally, there’s Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a stripper whom Julian lusts after. She — much like Julian — is a completely inconsequential character we never learn anything about.
This brings me to one of the film’s main problems: These characters are horribly developed, and there’s not a single reason to root for any of them. We can only cheer when one of the characters gets brutally slain, and that isn’t the same. Moreover, Refn still presents violence with his signature unflinching brutality, but that doesn’t come with an ounce of the energy seen in his previous works. Without any reason to be invested in the story or the characters, there’s no purpose to all the blood and pain. It’s just gratuitous, making the movie even more uncomfortable to sit through.
Of course, the characters might have been salvageable if they were played with any emotion at all. Without exaggeration, every single character in this film is played with the same thousand-yard stare. The approach may have worked for Gosling in Drive, but Driver was supposed to be an enigmatic and withdrawn character whom we wanted to know more about. With Driver, there was always a sense that there was something under the surface. With Julian — as with all the other characters in this movie — it’s just sloppy direction and writing. We know that what we see is what we get, and that isn’t much.
This brings me to the film’s other main problem: It’s so goddamned dreary. None of the characters ever show anything that remotely resembles joy, and there sure as hell isn’t any comic relief to be found. The characters spend the whole film alternately killing each other or brooding into the distance, and it’s not remotely fun to watch. Even worse, so much of the film is flooded with shadow. I get that the film is trying to create atmosphere, but it comes as a substitute for decent storytelling. This is especially true at the beginning, when the movie is trying to be all dark and dangerous before we know anything about the story or the stakes. The filmmakers haven’t earned the right to go so dark, and the result looks pretentious as fuck.
To be clear, that’s not to say dark and brooding movies can’t work. A fine example is last year’s Killing Them Softly, another pitch-black movie loaded with bloodshed and short on sympathetic characters. However, that movie had some very blunt and very intruiging statements to make about the death of the American Dream. Compare that to this movie, which offers nothing of any interest outside of its standard revenge thriller genre.
On the other hand, getting back to the visuals, there’s no denying that this movie is absolutely gorgeous. The camera moves and placements are all perfect, the lighting is a work of genius, and the sets are all extravagant. Yet the visuals are entirely undone by the crappy editing and the glacial pacing. This is one of those films that will hold on an actor’s face even though absolutely nothing is happening, trying to pass it off as suspense when it’s only padding out the runtime.
A fine example of the crappy editing comes roughly half an hour in, when Julian finally gets up off his ass and does something. Julian engages in a fight scene with Chang, and I must admit that the fight is well-shot and exquisitely choreographed. Unfortunately, the fight scene is completely ruined by incoherent editing, and the fight turns out to be entirely inconsequential.
Even worse, Julian ruins the editing in ways that are never explained. Far too often, we’ll see one version of a scene that’s intercut with another version. Whenever this happened, I was left with no idea of what was happening. I didn’t know which version was fake or if both were fake. I didn’t know if Julian was hallucinating or fantasizing or what. I had no idea what purpose any of this served or what the hell I was looking at.
Oh, and there are three short musical numbers in the film. They serve no purpose and stand out terribly against the grim tedium of the film’s remainder.
Only God Forgives is incoherent, painful, plodding, terribly acted, horribly written, incompetently directed, pretentious, boring, stupid… there are so many different kinds of awful to be found here. The cinematography may be great, but that only makes it easier to see the film’s copious flaws. I can recommend it as a cure for insomnia, but not much else.