In one sense, Only God Forgives feels like Refn throwing out an open challenge to fans of Drive; ‘you think that was a neo-crime cult pot pie? Try this on for size’. It is spiritually connected to Drive (and its opposite in a lot of ways), pushing the former’s aesthetic and penchant for ultraviolent genre exercise to a purist extreme, making sure to strip out threads of hope, positivity or any emotional access point through story or character. No, he does not make this easy for the audience. It’s a combination of emotionless storytelling, violence as/is pornography, a heavy self-serious tone and a languid pace (which wasn’t an issue for me for reasons I’ll get to) that feels like you’re walking underwater. There’s a streak of very dark humor that wants to get out but it’s too buried. So is the contrast between the anticipatory clenched fist and subsequent release through violence. Instead of contrast, the bleakness of the world depicted results in the film’s violence merely slipping into the proceedings instead of breaking out from under them.
Ryan Gosling serves up a massive dose of Charlie Bucket-face with this silent ‘hero’ schtick. Basically I’m over it and this is the same problem I had with his performance in Place Beyond the Pines. I’m certainly a fan of the actor, his talent and charisma are abundant, but he reads totally inert as a central figure here. Between this and Refn’s grotesque commitment to portentousness, a lot of the film falls apart.
But I still liked Only God Forgives. Why? For one, it just might be the most visually stimulating film I’ve seen from 2013, improving upon Drive in this aspect. For-the-ages cinematography gets you very far in my book even if masculine brutality bullshit blah-blah-blah doesn’t. So major hats off to Larry Smith. It channels the likes of Suspiria in its use of color; every single image is impeccably expressionistic in its use of color (a really subtle example being the use of black and green in that early highway scene), lighting, framing, and composition. Mein Gott those compositions! I tend to be attracted to compositions that feel like studies in stillness. And that’s a lot of what’s going on in this film. It recalls a lot of filmmakers in that sense, particularly David Lynch. The look of Only God Forgives is not a one-trick pony even if its thematic concerns kind of are. It’s a fucking goldmine. It is the main reason that the pacing never became a detractor for me. I was far too caught up in what I was looking at to feel any perceived drudgery. This film baths its characters in woozy color, always threatening to trap them in total darkness.
Thankfully, the film can’t even stay interested in its central character because it often ditches his sorry ass to follow two far more enticing characters in the forms of Kristen Scott Thomas (having a lot of fun with her shock value-oriented low-rent Versace) and Vithaya Pansringarm as the unreadable Lt. Chang.
Cliff Martinez does it again. I can forgive his dips into Inception-like ‘bbbaaaawwwwwww’ sounds because the majority of his score is a more-than-worthy take on the music of The Shining and “Twin Peaks”. One track, “Sister Part 1” is so genuinely affecting in the way it recalls Julee Cruise/Twin Peaks/Angelo Badalamenti. It’s my favorite piece of film score this year.
And so despite it being a largely monotonous nihilistic study of how men use their hands to destroy through violence with a lack of an engaging central figure I still cannot deny the powers of Refn’s latest.