Only God Forgives (2013)
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.
Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…
It has been a while since I posted one of these and I apologize for that. The newest film that I recommend you go out and pick up is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, an intense, existential, and unforgettable thrill ride of a film and a film that sits near the top of my best films of 2011. It is a must-see for the silent-but-extremely deadly performance from Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks as a sinister gangster who has it out for Gosling’s Driver. Boasting a pristine picture, a pulsing electronic score, and house-rattling action scenes, Drive is a film that you have to add to your Blu-ray collection. You’ll thank me later. If you wish to read my review of Drive, you can find the review here.
by Steve Habrat
To anyone who is considering seeing Drive, the new action thriller starring Ryan Gosling, you should be warned about what you will be getting yourself into. I say this because this is a fierce film. There are moments that are downright repugnant and not for those who disconcert easily. I had to search long and hard for the picture I used above because I felt that the main picture had to convey what this film really turns out to be. This noir-inspired, 80’s influenced retro picture thrives on its breakneck action, dismal atmosphere, ethereal electronic score, head-stomping violence, and a performance from Gosling that should guarantee him a spot in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. It will no doubt leave you in a state of shock, as the beginning of the film is relatively patient and discreet. Much to the dismay of the audience, it displays moments of pure, pretentious splendor. However, once Drive kicks things into high gear and it revs it’s supped up engine, this baby means business. And so does Gosling’s Driver. It all adds up to one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
I’ll tell you straight, this is an art film dressed up in action threads. It prefers complex characters to walking clichés. Gosling’s Driver is a man of a few soft grunts and sparse words. He flashes the occasional preoccupied smile at his next-door neighbor Irene (Played by Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio and he mostly keeps to himself. He effortlessly shrouds himself in mystery. The Driver (we never learn his actual name) drives stunt cars for movies, works in an auto mechanic shop, and also acts as a getaway driver for criminals. He has a strict line of rules that he lays down for the thugs that get in and out of his wheels. They have five minutes once they are inside, he does not carry a gun, when they are out, he belongs to them, and he only works for them one time. When Irene’s husband Standard (Played by Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, some goons that are coming to claim protection money demand that he robs a pawn shop to get them their riches, or they will kill Irene and his son. The Driver offers his services, but during the heist, things go horribly wrong. It turns out that this is just a small piece of a larger crime puzzle that is being controlled by two mobsters, the Jewish Nino (Played by Ron Pearlman) and Bernie Rose (Played by Albert Brooks). The Driver gathers himself and sets out to protect Irene and her son from the mobsters who are slowly closing in on them and are hell bent on wiping everyone out who can link them to the heist.
Drive feels like a synthesis of David Lynch films (Lost Highway especially), Quentin Tarantino, a forgotten 80’s action flick, Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, and Miami Vice swagger. It helps that the synthy score conjures up nostalgia every time it thumps over the speakers. The hot pink credits help too. But it’s Gosling’s unvoiced antihero that feels like the real relic. He feels like a lost hero from the Regan era. He’s emotionally complex, but also tough no matter what happens. Nothing fazes him and we play by his rules. He even nibbles at a toothpick, reminiscent of Eastwood’s cigar chewing Man with No Name. The film takes a hokey turn at the end when the Driver just begins finding all the mobsters he has set out to kill with little effort. Who knew it would be that easy? One would think that the writer and director would have added more of a build up before the end confrontation. The climax is sadly rushed, showing prominent similarities to Super 8 and Green Lantern (I understand they are drastically different movies, but their endings are extraordinarily similar). It just ends tersely. For a film that packs this much suspense and brute force, it left me wanting much more.
This film’s atmosphere, which is menacing and downright intimidating, adds to its own spellbinding success. At times, all you can do is laugh to soften the blow of its dead serious tone. It almost becomes a coping mechanism while watching the brutality of this film play out before you. The Driver always seems to lurk in the shadows. He works as a Hollywood stunt driver so it’s easy to assume he would live glamorously. Here the film evokes images that would seem appropriate in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Mullholland Drive, or Blue Velvet. There is evil lurking below all that glitz. There is also an existential haze to the film. The Driver lives on the edge, in the thrill of the moment. Every day could be his last. Director Nicholas Winding Refn has called the film a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of cult experimental films El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, whose films usually have a character on a quest for the meaning of existence. The viciousness of Drive certainly takes a page from Jodorowsky, as the film has some extreme gore, most notable is the elevator sequence. Gosling stomps a hit man’s face in to the point where it’s reduced to just red goop. Somewhere, French director Gaspar Noe is howling with delight. The audience I saw this with was howling in horror.
Drive consistently makes us ask the screen “Are you really going to go THERE?!” It always does, but it does have an unpredictable streak to it. You can never fully envisage it even if it is familiar. The film doesn’t rely on its violence and action (there is plenty, but not enough to satisfy some action fiends), but instead allows the chemistry between actors do the heavy lifting. Though the dialogue is limited between Mulligan’s Irene and the Driver, the moments they spend together are tender. When the Driver confronts gangster Bernie Rose, they fight with words rather than bullets or fists. “You will spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder,” Rose promises. It’s scenes like this that make every hair on your body stand up and churn your guts. Ron Pearlman’s Nino hams up the screen and he’s delightfully cartoonish. The film is the Gosling show, however, and with this role, I have to deem any project he is attached to in the future a must-see. He has become one of the most eccentric actors around.
Once you see Drive, you will never forget it. It’s like a parasite that worms its way in and posses you. I’ve found myself shaken up in the mere hours since I went to the theater to see it. The friends I went with were rattled and in a state of shock. You should know what you are getting yourself into when you see this. It’s not your conventional action film with clear-cut baddies and good guys. Everyone seems to have darkness in his or her hearts and cracked souls. Come year end, I will be singing its praises for all to hear. Drive is like a restored muscle car. It’s great to look at and when you see it, it pulls you in, but it’s what’s under the hood that counts. And Drive has a lot going on under the hood. Grade: A-
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Here is the ugly truth about the romantic comedy genre: The well has run dry! In the past years, it has had nothing new to offer on the topic of love, romance, and the comedy has sure been nonexistent. The genre has been forced to evolve in the most bizarre ways imaginable. It has stopped limiting itself to heterosexual relationships and branched out into “bromance” films, which include movies like the innocently hilarious I Love You, Man, the coming-of-age Superbad and the Adam Sandler monstrosity I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Sadly, the bromance films were just acting as the placebo tablet to the sickly genre that was riddled with cancer in the form of Kate Hudson. They were a nice distraction from the obvious but they refused to break new ground. They just remained stationary and unprogressive. We laughed it up but by the time we got The Hangover Part II, I think most people had had more than enough of the man and man action.
Thankfully, in saunters the confident and unapologetic Crazy, Stupid, Love and it is just in the nick of time. Goldie Locks Kate attempted once this summer and critics hissed in disgust but Steve Carell and his merry gang of gifted, pretty faces saved the day. The truly amazing aspect is that Crazy, Stupid, Love is one of the best films of the year so far. The film is teeming with life and it manages to be reassuring for the genre and the audience itself. The film covers all the stops when it comes to love and infatuation all the while fluffing off its PG-13 rating with a devil-may-care charm. Carell plays Cal, a slouchy everyman who appears to be just going through the motions of his marriage. He’s plain and downright insipid. He can’t talk to his wife Emily (Played by Julianne Moore) about anything over dinner except the fact that he ate too much bread and now he’s full. He now finds himself faced with the horrorific decision of what to order. Suddenly, Emily announces she wants a divorce from her husband of twenty-five years. She proceeds to tell him she has slept with someone else and she needs out. Cal is devastated and becomes a self-pitying sad sack.
While sulking in a posh bar, Cal meets Jacob (Played by the always welcome Ryan Gosling), a suave smooth talker who has no problem luring the ladies to bed. He approaches Cal and tells him he can make him over from the bumbling dud into a self-assured stud. He does and the transformation is downright side splitting. But Jacob soon decides to leave the game in pursuit of a sexy, over-achieving law student named Hannah (Played by Emma Stone, who appears to be everywhere this summer!).
Crazy, Stupid, Love is loaded with side stories and appealing background characters that make the film a joy to behold from second to second. The jokes are fast and the subject matter bold but the film presents it in such a sweet manner that you can’t be disgusted by it even if you tried. Even when the film finds itself at the most envelope pushing moments, know that the film is going to deliver one of the most satisfying payoffs imaginable. I won’t spoil too much of the raucous antics that follow, but it all adds up to a ten minute sequence that will have you howling with laughter. It all plays into the theme of the movie—love is crazy and we all act stupid in the face of it. When the bombshell Marisa Tomei shows up as horn ball teacher that Cal woos to bed, Cal lights up like a kid at Christmas when she asks what he wants to do with her in the throws of passion. Trust me, you will die laughing from his response. I guess when love and lust strike, we are all reduced to behaving like children.
The film boasts a shot-on-the-fly vérité approach at points and this adds to the down-to-earth mentality of the film. It has moments of raw emotion, especially in a scene where the separated Cal and Emily meet up at a parent/teacher conference. They have a heart-to-heart that will have many audience members’ eyes welling up with crocodile tears. The film hits exceptionally hard when it chooses but I guess that’s what love does—it hits us hard when we least expect it. Furthermore, love itself can be a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, just like the film. One second it will have us beaming and the next, we will be at its mercy. It gets us to lower our defenses and then it strikes. That, my dear friends, is what solid scriptwriting and filmmaking is all about.
I can only hope and pray with everything in me that this film is remembered come awards season. I hope that the Academy will be willing to sift through all the rubble from those superheroes and rediscover this gem. It’s taboo and reassuring all at the same time. You will fall head over heels for Carell and Gosling, both who play their characters as if they will never have another chance to be in front of the camera again. Moore plays the moist eyed Emily with her heart on her sleeve. She’s despicable in one moment and the grabbing our empathy the next. Stone brings her usual girl-next-door charm to Hannah. She is an actress to keep a close eye on and Crazy, Stupid, Love allows her to really convey some depth.
From the performances to the directing to the finely weaved story, Crazy, Stupid, Love is a finely polished piece of filmmaking. One that will be calling you back to take some comfort in it again even if you are not particularly bumming from lost love at the moment. I think it calls us back because these characters seem so real that we sincerely enjoy being in their company. It also features something literally everyone can relate to in some manner. In a summer filled with larger than life pictures released every Friday, this small, intimate portrait of emotion is the one that will leave the biggest impression on the viewer. Rejoice that the romantic comedy is still holding on to dear life. There’s still some life in that old dog yet! I can’t recommend this film enough. Grade: A