Moving Pictures Reviewed: Only God Forgives

Bloody brilliant or just bloody?

Riding high off the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn and new-found partner in crime(film-making), Ryan Gosling, re-team on the obsessively brooding Only God Forgives. Does this neon and crimson-soaked tale of ruthless revenge live up to the duo’s prior triumph or does it take a beating under all its own pretensions?

He’s a very dangerous boy…

Nicholas Winding Refn has fallen hard for Ryan Gosling, and, honestly, who can blame him? Their previous collaboration, 2011’s love-letter to 70’s crime-and-car capers, Drive, stood as a testament to Refn’s ability to squeeze tension out of every uncomfortable silence and thundering engine roar, not to mention Gosling’s endlessly endearing ability to communicate with others solely through icy, unblinking stares. Critics and audiences alike loved it, and the duo clearly felt there was more movie magic to be had from the blossoming bromance. Lucky for the two, Refn had put one of his personal projects on hold prior to shooting Drive: this project, a revenge tale set in Thailand, promised to be darker and more brutal flick than Drive. There would be fists. There would be blood. There would be immaculate camera work. There would be Gosling. Of Course, if good looks alone could carry 90 minutes on celluloid, perhaps Refn would’ve been on to something here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.

Maybe that “unfortunately” is a bit unwarranted- don’t get me wrong: Only God Forgives is by no means the movie-buff wet-dream that Drive was. That said, it’s hardly a disappointing film when weighed on its own merits. Hauntingly (and sometimes downright beautifully) shot against the neon-tinged backdrop of Bangkok’s many alleys, karaoke bars, and dens of malicious intent, the film is visually absorbing. Refn clearly goes to painstaking lengths to meticulously frame every punch, gunshot, and swing of the sword. Even idle characters take on a hint of artistic exhibitionism, surrounding themselves in creeping strands of cigarette smoke or dousing themselves in crimson store-front street-light.

Kirsten Scott Thomas glows in Refn’s neon-tinged dreams.

The soundtrack is hardly a slouch either, for that matter. Cliff Martinez, another Drive alum, does an admirable job imbuing each scene with an appropriate sense of surreal and terrifying electricity. Minimalist synths carry the suspense of a long walk down a dimly lit hallway with understated grace, while the occasional blast of an organ cuts through digitized arpeggios during a climactic duel between protagonists. Martinez’s use of eastern-tinged rolling drums that echo throughout much of the film are key to bolstering OGF‘s pacing, not to mention the audience’s attention to the carnage that usually accompanies it.

Wanna fight?

If you’ve noticed, I’ve kept talk about silly things like, say, plot and acting, pretty hush-hush up till now. Not that either of those things are particular letdowns here: everyone on screen seems completely game for the task at hand, and the story, in which Gosling’s boxing manager/drug dealer goes on the hunt for those deemed responsible in his older brother’s death, is both seedy and bloody enough to keep your eyes glued to the action behind the slits of your fingers. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough of either to warrant much ado about them.

Bromance in its natural habitat

Gosling’s lead billing is confusing, given he probably has less than 15 spoken lines throughout the whole movie. While his screen-time, as Julian, is considerable, he spends most of it lugging around with a manic, wide-eyed expression plastered over his mug as he stares at hookers, boxers, cops, and his arms, over and over AND over again. Sure, it can be gleamed as symbolic of Julian’s stranger-in-a-strange-place-out-for-vengeance character arc (if that’s what you think you can call it), but whereas Gosling’s titular Driver wore his silence like a badge of badass honor, Julian wears it like a ball and chain weighing down what could easily make for a more engrossing character study.

“I haz arms.” – Julian

Likewise, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the near enigmatic Lt. Chang (aka, the not so subtle “Angel of Death”) with comparable restraint, though his icy silence makes far more sense given the near supernatural nature of his hound-of-justice character. The rest of the mostly Thai cast put up a good show (and occasional beating), though the real scene stealer of the flick is a very, very high strung Kirsten Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, the aptly named Crystal. Offering both an air of venerability and maniacal intensity to this drug queen, Scott Thomas is not only believable in the role, but utterly terrifying. The overt hints at Oedipal interplay between herself and Julian flesh out the film’s commentary on the nature of family between savages, and elevates the film beyond its otherwise run-of-the-mill premise.

Somebody’s gearing up to get sliced

One might expect action to be the selling point in a movie like this, however Only God Forgives is far more a mood piece than a standard summer slug-fest. Sure, there’s violence, but most of it is carried out after a quick cutaway, leaving much of the bloodshed (honestly, quite thankfully) to the viewers imagination. Nobody’s head explodes à la Drive‘s shotgun scene, however there are plenty of gnarly fisticuffs and sword disembowelment to be had here. Keep in mind, this is not a film for the squeamish. That said, the violence itself is hardly tasteless, often playing out in a brutal ballet of flying steel and surging red. If anything, this is Refn’s most reserved outing yet, the shockers paling next to his earlier forays into the genre.

Pretty brutal… prettay, prettaay, prettaaay brutal.

Overall, Only God Forgives proves both an equally impressive and frustrating journey, an engrossing and stylish neo-noir piece bogged down by occasional bouts of self-indulgence and a lackluster script. It’s not Drive, but it’s still a helluva movie. And what’s not to like about that?


Hidden Gems of 2011 (or 2010, if you wanna get technical…): Hesher

Hesher (2010)

Scalding to the touch (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous miscreant)

The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.

Definitely not 500 Days of Summer.

The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.

TJ! Watch out! There's a totally crazy, badass metalhead behind you!!!

From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.

Nothing quite like rolling your grandma's corpse down a public street to get your spirits up. Thanks Dr. Hesher!

Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.

Leaving his mark.