What an edgy poster!
Only God Forgives (2013) reunites Ryan Gosling with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. A movie poster like the one above highlights the “edgy” violence that peppers the film. The actual viewing experience might leave its audience feeling beat up. The striking visuals and moments of understated brilliance are weighed down by a slow pace, an anti-hero that may or may not be on Ambien in every scene, and an ending that will most likely leave you befuddled, or at least leave you on your own to decide what the meaning of it all is.
The movie takes place in Thailand, where two expatriate brothers, one of which is Julian, played by Gosling, and the other of which is a pyschotic with an interest in under-aged girls. This combination results in the brother being found with a dead underage prostitute in a hotel room. Rather than arresting him, the police’s Lieutenant Chang, who, according to Wikipedia, acts as “The Angel of Vengeance,” allows the father of the slain girl to do what he wants to Gosling’s brother in the hotel room. But the father takes things too far, and kills the brother. However, Chang does not care about Billy’s death; instead, Chang cuts off the father’s forearm for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute.
Although the film at this point is bathed in both red neon light and blood, we only see the aftermath of each attack. The visuals are gruesome yet beautiful. Bathing the film in red neon light is a bit on the nose, but it fit not only the subject matter but the seediness of the setting. You can feel the tawdriness of the city enveloping the main characters.
Gosling, who owns a Muy Thai boxing club (which we learn later is a front for a drug smuggling operation), soon learns about his brother’s murder, and seeks out the girl’s father. Just as you think this film will become a art-house Death Wish, we find Gosling actually listening to the explanation. I liked that we don’t actually hear that explanation; instead we see the father gesturing and talking, and we see Gosling’s reaction, if you can call it that. Gosling stares straight ahead, stoic and seemingly unmoved. He decides to do nothing to the father.
So as not to confuse Julian with someone of high moral ground, or “the good son,” or even someone who shuns violence, we are shown various things that make us believe that Julian ultimately lacks moral convictions. He is not an anti-hero, he is a non-hero, a weak person who passively accepts things he can change. He is not above seeking out prostitutes himself: he pays a regular named Mai to put on a show for him while he remains at a distance, tied up to a chair. He seems to be almost asleep throughout the movie, with occasional explosions of rage or violence that only sometimes seem to have a reason behind them. He can beat someone up at a club for no reason, drag him across the floor by his teeth. Yet when confronting Lt. Chang, who is ultimately responsible for his brother’s death, he is strangely impotent, and quite easily beaten in hand to hand combat.
Julian’s mother, Crystal, bursts onto the scene, and we get all that we need to know about why Julian and his brother’s mental and emotional problems by the way Crystal treats the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel. This scene is brilliant, but at times the role as written by Refn may have been a bit too much. Crystal is very willing to act where Julian has been passive, and she stirs up the pot by taking vengeance against her son’s killers. This moves the plot and action along, but perhaps too much of an incestuous vibe is played up for my taste. She compares the penis sizes of her sons when at a dinner with Julian, who is pretending that Mai is his girlfriend. She sees right through the ruse, delivering judgment upon Mai and Julian with scorn in a way that only a spiteful mother could. I’m not sure we need the incestuous overtones thrown in.
Regardless, up until this point, the look of the film, the performances, and the script measured up to the expectations I had for the film (I was not a huge fan of Drive, a film for the most part has erased itself from my memory). The way Refn used violence in the film was effective and even though graphic, understated. But there’s a scene where it started to go south a bit for me. Lt. Chang is nearly executed by gunmen in an outdoor restaurant. Chang tracks down the man who hired the gunmen, whose name is Byron, who himself was hired by Crystal to kill Chang. Lt. Chang drive skewers through Byron’s hands, legs, eye, and ear in a drawn out scene that would seem more at home in Reservoir Dogs than in this film. It seemed to want to shock the audience with how realistic it was. It felt very out of place in a film where we often feel like we are in a dream state, or like Julian, seemingly overdosing on Ambien.
Throughout the film, Julian has had visions of Chang, and it seems like we are destined for a great showdown when Chang and Julian finally confront each other in the boxing gym. But expectations and hopes are quickly dashed, as Chang easily defeats Julian in hand to hand combat, in the same way that a human swats away a fly. I thought the way this scene was handled was interesting and different, but it contributes to the unraveling of the film. I’m not sure what it really was supposed to mean or signify. Julian clearly is not a hero or a villain or even much of a presence or force in the film. That is clear. What isn’t clear is why this story was told in the first place. I don’t feel I was ever given a reason to care why Julian was such a non-entity. Perhaps if Chang had more of a personality himself, that might have provided some insight. But although a force to be reckoned, dealing out punishment to all those who come his way, Chang is too reserved and mysterious himself to be an effective counterpart to Julian. (Crystal is the most understandable and interesting character in the film, but the film isn’t really about her, except for the fact that that in a sense she created Julian’s personality by being such a forceful personality herself).
Although there are a great many things worthy to praise in this film, there wasn’t enough insight into Julian or Chang to feel one way or another about how it ended. It really didn’t end in a traditional sense either, with another vision of Julian’s ending the film. Chang sings karaoke in a bar in front of other policemen as the credits roll. Although it seems unclear, I took this to mean he is the last man left standing, even though Julian’s last vision breaks from reality and the gritty setting of urban Thailand and ends in a field surrounded by trees.
Refn is extremely talented in an unconventional way. But he still has a long way to go before he can get me to care about what happens in his films as much as I can enjoy the technical skills on display. He knows how to write in a restrained way, by showing rather than telling. But he needs to show a bit more, give his characters some emotional weight, for his films to feel like they are more artsy exercises in pretentiousness.