by Steve Habrat
In 2011, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn found mainstream success with his blazing art-house thriller Drive, a film that took me by complete surprise. What I figured would be just another throwaway action movie with growling muscle cars turned out to be an 80s existential gut-punch throwback that wasn’t easy to shake off. Needless to say, it definitely had me eagerly anticipating what Refn would deliver next. Two years later, Refn returns with Only God Forgives, a film that couldn’t be a bigger disappointment. Lit like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, sculpted around one of the laziest plots you could imagine, and weird just for the sake of being, well, weird, Only God Forgives reteams Refn with Drive star Ryan Gosling, an ever-welcome talent that was the head-stomping main-attraction of Drive. With a star like Gosling in front of the camera, you’d think that he would be able to bring something substantial to this snoozefest, but its as if he was sleepwalking through the role, quietly trying to make sense of what exactly Refn was trying to achieve here aside from paying tribute to his idol, Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is what he claimed to be doing with Drive. What we’re left with is a senselessly bloody exercise in style without any purpose or direction. Only God Forgives exists simply to be morose collection of empty neon images that are better suited for a music video.
Only God Forgives introduces us to Julian (played by Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer running a boxing club that is actually a front for a drug operation in Bangkok. One stormy evening, Julian’s erratic brother, Billy (played by Tom Burke), rapes and kills a young prostitute in a seedy hotel room. The Bangkok police quickly discover what Billy has done, but rather than detaining him and taking him to the station, the police call in retried officer Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding sadist known as the Angel of Vengeance. Chang encourages the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (played by Kovit Wattanakul), to do what he wishes to Billy. In a fit of rage, Choi kills and mutilates Billy’s body. Word of Billy’s death soon reaches Julian and his associates, who track down Choi to question him about Billy’s brutal murder. Meanwhile, Julian’s mother, Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to claim Billy’s body and get to take control of the situation. After learning that Julian spared Choi’s life, Crystal demands that he take to the neon streets and exact bloody revenge on the men responsible.
Early on, Only God Forgives shows signs of promise with the swirling sense of dread that lingers over the hypnotic red and blue frames. Refn slowly glides his camera down harshly lit hallways aglow with red lighting that suggest that we have stepped into Hell itself. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as Billy, Julian, their associates, and a boxer stand around in a darkened room declaring “it’s time to meet the devil.” The tension and unease tighten when Billy stumbles off to a futuristic whorehouse in the hopes of finding a young fourteen-year-old girl to have his way with, something that is sure to make any viewer sick to their stomach. It all feels so tremendously evil and it’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. Sadly, the sinister mood of the film is quickly overtaken by Refn’s trudging pace, which gives way to frustrating tedium. Every single scene feels unnecessarily drawn out or glaringly hollow as characters sit around in flashing nightclubs or lavish hotel rooms staring off into space or silently plotting their next vicious move. It’s certainly pretty to look at, that I can’t deny, but it seems that Refn is under the impression that these stretches of meditative silence are thought provoking in all their surreal glory. Instead, they become mind-numbingly boring, further hurt by the lack of an entrancing character.
As far as the characters of Only God Forgives are concerned, almost every single one of them is as wretched as they could possibly be. Gosling’s Julian just sits around sulking, watching blank-faced prostitutes pleasure themselves or staring down at his quivering fists like it’s the first time he has ever seen them. He does show a few hints of compassion, which makes him slightly redeemable, but his constant detachment makes his character a major bore. Things really get weird when his sexpot mother, Crystal, shows up to scold him for not gunning down his brother’s killer when he had the chance. Crystal consistently alludes to having sexual relations with both of her sons, the most awkward coming when she discusses Billy and Julian’s, um, manhood with Mai (played by Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute paid to act as Julian’s girlfriend. Then we have Pansringarm’s Chang, a mysterious man who brings his punishing sword down on any man or woman who has committed an atrocious sin. He encourages Choi to murder Billy, only to return to chop off one of Choi’s arms for turning a blind eye to his daughter’s line of work, and he savagely tortures a gangster responsible for ordering a hit that left several citizens and police officers dead. Pansringarm’s eerily calm demeanor is meant to send chills, especially when he nonchalantly brings bloody vengeance down on his victim’s heads with so much as blinking, but Refn doesn’t write any personality into the character. The most interesting thing about him is that he likes to sing karaoke.
Only God Forgives finds Refn also reteaming with Cliff Martinez, the man who composed the chilling score for the masterpiece that is Drive. Only once or twice does Martinez unleash the retro synths that accompanied Drive and he does incorporate a throbbing organ that compliments the hellish blaze of the winding hallways we wander around, but everything else just falls flat by comparison. One of the stronger aspects of Only God Forgives is the way that Refn pays tribute to Jodorowsky, the man behind such midnight movies like Holy Mountain and El Topo. Several symmetrical shots called to mind certain scenes from Holy Mountain and there was even an echo of Kubrick in a few spots, something that was particularly surprising. Overall, while Drive was certainly going to be a tough act for Refn to follow, Only God Forgives is a disastrous follow-up that consistently allows style to mask the fact that there is very little substance. The artistic freedom is certainly refreshing and the ominous mood is undoubtedly effective, but it becomes increasingly clear that Refn is simply stroking his ego, leaving you disappointed that you didn’t just re-watch your copy of Drive. Plus, it’s a bad sign when Ryan Gosling can’t even save your movie.
Only God Forgives is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.
We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.
Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).
While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.
We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.
We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.