o n l y g o d f o r g i v e s
2nd August 2013
Nicolas Winding Refn
Gosling, Scott Thomas
2nd August 2013
Only God Forgives. One of the most controversial films of the year so far, booed at Cannes, derided by critics and splitting audiences more than Simon Cowell riding a unicycle with his new baby eating a Marmite sandwich. At the screening I attended at the BFI where the air con was broken on the hottest August since dinosaurs roamed the earth, around ten people walked out, but that may have been because the sweat running into their eyes had started to impair their vision. Personally I felt that the heat added to the descent into Hades Winding Refn presents in the first 15 minutes, It was like an extra sensory screening.
Only God Forgives is a strange film. I am still turning it over in my mind as I write this. Part of me feels like it was completely brilliant and part of me feels like it was completely ridiculous. It's probably elements of both. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a drug dealer living in Thailand who also has some involvement in a Muay Thai boxing club along with his dubious brother Billy. Julian is a man of extremely few words whose one pleasure seems to be his sexual involvement with beautiful prostitute, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongom). Billy on the other hand is a drinker whose penchant for very young girls leads him down a path that ends badly for him and results in the introduction of two forces into Julian's quiet life that will change it forever; a terrifying policeman-stroke-vigilante, Chang (the wonderful Vithaya Pangsringarm) and his lovely mother Crystal, exquisitely played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Crystal's desire for revenge for her first born and favourite son means she pushes Julian into Chang's sphere where he finally takes part in his own destiny, hints of which had come to him through visions. Got all that? Good.
As always with a Winding Refn film this looks good. There are some bewitching shots and stunning cinematography by Larry Smith, a myriad of Oriental reds and yellows, a wall of ochre shining through a panelled room. It's like a luxe, hipster, coffee table book. It's certainly like nothing else I've seen although some colours and dreamlike visions brought to mind my childhood watching Enter The Dragon on my dad's knee. At times I'm sure I could smell Bangkok, Winding Refn has chosen such authentic locations, it felt like a Thai movie at times – with Ryan Gosling in it. The film is vague, dreamlike. The story, whilst there is one, hangs on like a light mist as scenes that seem to have nothing to do with anything drift in and out. It feels Lynchian at times but unfortunately not with the same ownership Lynch takes of every one of his films. Sometimes I felt like Winding Refn was presenting something to us like a schoolboy, nudging it forward, saying 'well, what do you think'. Other scenes work well and the violence though extreme and had me peeking through my hands more than once doesn't feel alien to the story or necessary – it's a brutal dream Winding Refn is relaying here, this is no fairytale. The music, at times nothing more than a foreboding repetitive drum, adds to the dreamlike state. There are only two music choices in Only God Forgives - disconcerting death knoll drumming or disconcerting trance. Oh yes, I forgot, there is also Thai karaoke.
So let's talk about the good. The casting of Kristin Scott Thomas is number one. Inspired no less. It's a stupendously fun role for her and she is loving it, and who doesn't want to hear the phrase 'cum dumpster' out of a national treasure? She is wonderful, I am a huge fan anyway but mostly of her French films of late so it is nice to see her in a fulfilling, different role in an English speaking film. The Thai cast are all great, particularly Pangsringarm who really carves out a fantastic character of Chang, a devoted father who has an old fashioned way of dealing with criminals. Having not seen any Thai movies (too busy watching pirated ones in cafes in Bangkok) I can only draw comparison again with films such as the aforementioned Enter The Dragon. The colours and the themes of revenge typical in old martial arts movies. Pangsringarm has a wicked way with a sword and there is one very simple scene of him doing some sword work by a dirty bit of river as the sun is rising that really resonated with me. Phongom is also great as Mai, the enigmatic prostitute, beautiful but also really blossoms when given something to do mid way through the film. One to watch.
And so onto our golden boy Gosling. It's widely reported that another actor was supposed to be in the role of Julian and dropped out at the last minute (supposedly Luke Evans). Winding Refn was having a chat with his buddy Gosling and Gosling said he would do it. The actor and director apparently share a similar view of things, when I interviewed Winding Refn he said that he and Gosling were like two Sylvanian Families bears driving in a small car together. So there you have it. Gosling is of course a fantastic actor. He is sexy as hell, not afraid to be brave, lacking in vanity and having sex with Eva Mendes in real life. What a guy. I love him. However I do not entirely love him in Only God Forgives and I feel the role would have been better played by a more bland, less charismatic actor. Julian says perhaps 20 words in the whole film. We get a glimpse of a suggestion that he killed his father to protect his mother. Or just killed his father. It's never clear and one can't help but draw similarities with Drive. It's just that this film is so off the wall that Gosling's presence at times makes it confusing as to what the film is. I would be intrigued to see how it would have been received with a different actor, I'm pretty sure a fair few of the audience last night at the BFI were Gosling fans as opposed to Winding Refn fans. Gosling's scenes with Kristin Scott Thomas are always good, nicely playing to the Oedipal suggestions and the fight scene with Chang is magnificent, when was the last time you remember a Hollywood actor realistically losing a fight? It is executed sublimely by both Gosling and Winding Refn. Tom Burke as Billy and Byron Gibson are also worth a mention. Gibson has another extremely memorable and difficult to watch scene in the most bizarre setting. Keep an eye out for it (you'll get the pun when you watch it - If you can watch it.).
And so concludes my ramble on Only God Forgives. I have no idea if I am recommending it, it is an experience. Keep an open mind and sit near the exit if you're squeamish. Good luck.
Check out the trailer here....