Friday, August 02, 2013

Only God Forgives

The most immediate and jarring trick Nicolas Winding Refn pulls in ‘Only God Forgives’ is the shatteringly out-of-whack ratio of visual beauty (cinematography) to visceral ugliness (mise en scene). The only way I can describe it is as if ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ had been lensed by Jack Cardiff. Seriously: this is the ‘Black Narcissus’ of venal brutality, the ‘Matter of Life and Death’ of rape/revenge.

Ooops, I’m sorry. Did anyone trip over the Powell & Pressburger references in the above paragraph. Sorry, but they were incorporated deliberately. Of this, more later.

The most guiltily pleasurable and equally jarring trick Refn pulls in ‘Only God Forgives’ is taking the kind of role that you’d normally associate with, say, Shelley Winters in ‘Bloody Mama’ or Irene Dailey in ‘The Grissom Gang’ and handing it to that most elegant, refined and cultured of English roses Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s a performance that’s already being compared to Ben Kingsley in ‘Sexy Beast’.

The plot is pure 70s exploitation: in Bangkok, two American brothers – Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) – run a boxing club as a front for drug smuggling (the logistics are never really gone into). Julian spends his leisure time tied to a chair and voyeuristically watching bought-and-paid-for escort Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) bring herself off. Billy, on the other hand, goes out looking for violent sex, the younger his partner the better. One night, having failed to persuade a pimp to pimp out his 14-year-old daughter, Billy assaults the man then beats one of his girls to death. This latter, mercifully, occurs offscreen. Bangkok’s finest arrive on the scene, in the personage of Inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his men. Chang, a vicious man with a zen-like centre of calmness, dispenses his own paperwork-free, let’s-not-bother-the-courts-with-it brand of justice by locking Billy in a room with the girl’s father who does what any grieving father would do if given access to his daughter’s murderer. Exeunt Billy.

(At this point, it’s perhaps a good idea to consider the film’s title as only half of the dialectic. Try ‘Only God Forgives … But Devils Mete Out Infinite Punishment’ for size.)

Chang then braces the father, accusing him of complicity in his daughter’s slide into prostitution. Exhorting him to focus not on his dead child, but his other three daughters who are still alive, Chang hammers the message home by chopping off the guy’s hand. Next up, this poor son of a bitch is quaking in the corner of a dingy room as Julian, flanked by two heavies, draws down on him. Julian, evidently the more philosophical of the siblings, gives him a chance to account for his actions. Subsequently, he lets him go.

With this narrative arc explored over 90 minutes, ‘Only God Forgives’ could have hiked its way up to a small hillock of high ground, declaring itself a morality play. In Refn’s hands, this is just the first 15 minutes and the narrative explodes in any number of horrible directions as vituperative, foul-mouthed matriarch Crystal (Scott Thomas) comes jetting into Bangkok looking for vengeance and less than impressed with Julian’s lack of a proactive approach. Learning of Chang’s part in the proceedings, Crystal instigates a particularly ill-thought-out campaign of violent retribution which only serves to focus Chang’s attention on Julian.

Essentially, the story is: A does something violent to B as a result of which C does something violent, after which D does something violent, and then hey ho whaddaya know, E, F and G are whipping out swords and guns and H, I and J are leaking corpuscles all over the place. To put it another way, imagine Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’, in which one deceitful act sets in motion a chain of consequences which negatively affects everyone involved, no matter how peripherally, updated to Bangkok and drenched in blood, and that’s where we’re at.

‘Only God Forgives’ has been dividing the critics as sharply as any of Chang’s swordplay. Writers on film who I personally consider my go to guys for recommendations have professed emotional responses bordering on hatred. I’ll admit that I had two strong drinks before I took my seat in the cinema. And it has to be admitted, Refn sails very close to hoisting himself by his own petard. Symbolism isn’t just introduced, it grabs the viewer by their lapels, hauls them up close to the screen and yells in their face whilst slapping them with a wet kipper. Religious overtones roll up their sleeves, point to crucifix tattoos on their bulging biceps and ask you if you faakin’ want some. The soundtrack is probably annotated as Symphony in Self-Importance in A(hole) Major.

And yet, despite the melodrama, the glacial pace (there are pregnant pauses in the dialogue that leave you itching for a gynaecologist to turn up and perform a caesarean) and the sheer unremitting nastiness of the whole thing, Refn wrestles a sense of accomplishment from the material. Partly it's in the incredibly focussed application of cinematography. The first scene is at the boxing club, two fighters squaring off in the ring. One wears blue trunks, the other red. The cloudless sky of the firmament vs the fiery infernos of hell? The opposing PR palette of political parties, both of whom betray their electorate and stand by and watch young men die? Your humble blogger on a pint too far and reading way too much into this? Whichever interpretation you choose, the film’s visual aesthetic is established within seconds. And undeviated from. ‘Only God Forgives’ never, for a second, looks anything less than stunning.

And partly it’s in the way Refn reflects the film’s ugly/beautiful dichotomy back at the audience. I mentioned earlier that the pace is glacial. This is because the characters spend more time moodily watching things than they do participating in them. Chang’s colleagues blankly watch his moribund karaoke performances; Julian watches Mai in solo flagrante; a disabled child watches Chang interrogate a suspect; Crystal watches Julian disastrously square off against Chang when her incessant campaign of needling and provoking him finally yields results. It’s worth noting how many of these watchers are confined to their seats, either by bonds, sharp implements or muscular dystrophy. And those who aren’t, watch out of prurience.

As the sexually liberated ethos of the 60s began to permeate British cinema, Michael Powell proved himself half a decade or so ahead of his time with ‘Peeping Tom’, a film that pretty much destroyed his career and wasn’t hailed as the masterpiece it so evidently is until the late 80s. Penned by former spy Leo Marks, that film was an examination of scoptophilia (i.e. “the morbid desire to watch”). Powell unblinkingly turned the camera on his audience and royally pissed them off in the process. Refn does something unapologetically similar with ‘Only God Forgives’, and if the critical response to the film thus far is anything to go by he’s rubbed a fuckton of salt into the still-open wound that Powell inflicted.


Elwood Jones said...

I don't think since "Southland Tales" has a film divided critics as much as this film, as personally I really liked it. At the same time this was having entered the film with prior warning as to what to expect, seeing how Refn's trailer like the one for "drive" sells it as being somthing completly diffrent than the film we get. As a result of this I did get to see the same walk outs that I saw with "Drive" as most of the audience realised that they had stumbled into the wrong movie, than the one sold to them by the trailer.

Neil Fulwood said...

I saw it with quIte an open minded audience: only two people headed for the exit. That said, couples and groups of friends spilled out in silence as the end credits played out and there were bemused looks on many faces.