Who’s this film for exactly? Not for people who can say ‘Drive brought me here’ apparently. When you’re filled with expectation, I guess turbulence can set in if you don’t get your fix. Yeah they demand directors stay on course and give them repackaged versions of what they’ve done before. And when they get it, they demand that those directors abandon that and try something new. You can’t really satisfy them. They want their genre films to resemble the familiar with only minor innovations, and nothing too drastic. In this case a Pew pew film and not a gangster with impotence. No not the sexual dysfunction. Although there is plenty of water from that well.
Now get up and kiss your mother…I’ll get the man who killed your brother.
The first twenty minutes seem as if we’re walking through the hallucinations of several split-personalities. Nothing is moving. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the opening. There is little dialog and the thrust of everything is its imagery. A stopwatch ex-cop who carries a Kachin Dha or short sword invades people’s personal space as if transcending time. A pedophile tourist scopes Thailand for girls under fourteen. When he fails to get the man distributing girls to give up his daughter for a large sum he beats him over the head with a bottle. Then attacks the other girls in the Panopticon-like room they’re in.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) plays a drug dealer in Bangkok and runs a boxing club for cover. His brother has just been killed. Incidentally the pedophile in question. He vows to get revenge, though you wouldn’t know that by him telling you. Gosling has seventeen lines in total for the whole film and looks at people as if they were mirrors reflecting back at him. His stare works. The scene where his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) initiates his date into the realities of what he does is something else. Telling her that her son Julian’s cock wasn’t as big as his brother’s reveals an active Oedipal ragecano on tour in Thailand on his face. The stare that crossed all known realms. It was cringing but funny.
Ex-cop Chang played by Vithaya Pansringarm is an avenging angel of death. Maybe God. Something that was whispered into his ear during filming by Refn. He resembles Robert Blake’s Mystery Man from Lost Highway and seems to pull his sword from out of his back, almost as if it was his spine. It’s a third limb for him as he patrols this universe from another plane of existence. He’s also a Karaoke singer who serenades his fellow officers. Neither of who do anything as they like everyone else in this film are observers in this world of silence and fear. They’re you and me. A witness of some sort. He’s there to sever limbs and oedipal relationships. Business seems to be booming in this world of blood-painting still lives. Where the bodies are arranged in a way as to force us to meditate on them.
In the fight between Julian and Chang, Julian loses badly. Don’t expect to root for one or the other as it’s irrelevant. This is a war between two almost supernatural forces, maybe even nations if I read the subtext correctly. Julian who cocks his fists and looks like he’s prepared for battle embarrasses himself, unable to even land a punch. He later retreats to a rural compound to stare into himself eventually brandishing a gun to even things out. This is quite a strong scene on male impotence and possibly American gun culture. I can’t be sure. But Nicolas Winding Refn, whose previous work was Drive (also starring Gosling), essentially made this into a ‘Western with a modern cowboy’ for its template as he said. So that could be an indication.
The space around scenes folds like Japanese dividing screens. Even curtains and ornamental displays between diaphanous and opaque become something to look at or through into another room. The film reminds me of Mishima, shot like a play. Faces haunt you in a mysterious foreign land where the Eighties never stopped. And the soundtrack reflects that.
This film wasn’t going to do well even at only one hour and twenty nine minutes. And it isn’t for everyone. No one according to some. That much is certain. It floats and lingers trying to penetrate the minds of its characters in an attempt to link the audience to the acts. It’s mostly images reduced to symbols. You will have to think about while watching and that’s a problem these days. Though I think it’s always been one to tell you the truth.
Who will judge the judges here? If they want commercialism in all their films and think that anything else shouldn’t even exist, use this as your criteria instead. Look at the trailer, and if you don’t see a dinosaur in it, don’t go see it. This film is not for you!
Only God Forgives (2013), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn