Friday, 9 August 2013

Only God Forgives - Ryan Gosling will hurt you.

"Wanna Fight?" 

I just want to say something about Ryan Gosling first of all.

It doesn’t matter what gender you are, what sexual orientation you are, or how insecure or confident you may be in your own appearances. No one can deny that Ryan Gosling, as far as male human beings go, is a pretty damn fine specimen. Gosling has gained a reputation for being a quiet one in movies, adopting a ‘less is more’ approach to acting by not saying much at all. Of course, he doesn’t need to, because he is so good looking. Who needs words when you’re Ryan Gosling? Whatever scene you are pitched in, you draw in audiences automatically like a tractor beam – moths to the flame. Words and indeed the traditional point of having dialogue in films - whether it is to move along the plot or add emotional substance or colour becomes utterly meaningless. Unworthy of Ryan Gosling, who almost seems to be lampooning the archetype he so easily could be typecast. People go to the cinema for spectacle, Ryan Gosling’s face is that spectacle. Words are extra. 

Of course, Gosling could quite easily have become the next Matthew Mcconaughey. Picking up a series of sumptuous pay cheques from a string of crowd pleasing romantic comedies. But he doesn’t. He did the Notebook and a few others, but that was it. He knows he could so easily be typecast, which is why he teams up with directors like Nicholas Winding Refn who have the ability of amping up his on screen persona to the sublime, where his normally immaculate visage begins to crack and denature.

Still would? Of course you would... 
This was evidenced by 2011’s Drive. The only way to snap audiences out of the Ryan Gosling effect is to have his character partake in tonal extremes. To paraphrase Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club, to destroy something beautiful.  Drive, in my opinion, was a fantastic movie of old school execution and sensibilities, but at the time of release the movie seemed to rub audiences up the wrong way. The main reason, seemed to be focused on the film being mis-marketed as a thriller with car chases starring Ryan Gosling, but in actuality it was a far darker affair laced with scenes of the old ultra violence in which the blue eyed, blonde haired poster boy at one point threatens to hammer a bullet into the forehead of an unlucky plebian. 

And so we come to the Gosling/Refn tag team’s latest feature Only God Forgives. A title that shouldn’t mislead audiences into the multiplex, not like last time. Well… all those who didn’t like Drive will presumably be AWOL, safely wrapped up in another screen watching the Smurfs 2 presumably. I can almost guarantee that all those, hoping for a spiritual successor to Drive however will feel misled. Also disappointed and potentially violated, because Only God Forgives is a completely different movie.       

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is the owner of a boxing club in Bangkok, which serves as the legitimate front to his family’s drug dealing business. When his dickheaded brother is killed after murdering a 14-year old local girl, his mother Crystal (a barely recognizable Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in from the US to collect the body. Crystal is the head of the business and is angry when she finds out that Julian has apparently neglected to seek and snuff out his brother’s killer. The culprit is a policeman turned vigilante by the name of Chang, who has a preference for administering an old testament, wrath of God styled justice by way of a short katanna sword he seems to unsheathe from thin air. After the family put out a hit on Chang, events escalate, ultimately pitting Julian against the seemingly unstoppable ‘angel of vengeance’.

Ho boy. So in that last paragraph - the obligatory set the plot up for the reader paragraph - I tried to leave you, the reader, feeling compelled into finding out how it all ends, whether Ryan Gosling bests his brother’s killer. This is usually done so as not to give away the plot and also for you to keep reading. It becomes very clear in this movie, that there is only one way this story is going to end and that goes double for Gosling's character.  

When you think back to Drive, you think about the tangibility of its world and characters. LA was as big a character as its cast, whether it was from the perspective of the city at night or driving through the storm drains by day. The world of stunt driving and indeed getaway driving, is where man and machine are symbiotically connected. Even the manner in which the film was made was refreshingly old school, with little computer generated effects and a masterful display of cinematography. The characters too, were all functional in their own way, Bryan Cranston as the friendly fatherly fixer, Ron Perlman as the big bad, Casey Mulligan as the girl stuck in a bad place and of course Ryan Gosling as the blue eyed hero. Finally, the era it was set felt vintage, a simpler time viewed through a rose tinted lense. There was a tangible sensibility in its method, functions and tone. 

Best line from the film: "Remember, Girls... no matter what happens, keep your eyes shut. And you men... take a good look." 
Only God Forgives, in contrast is far more art house in design. It feels more like a product of Thai cinema, its concrete jungle plagued by sin and over violence, in dire need of somebody to clean up the streets by any means necessary. At the same time, there is a feeling of intangibility, an almost dreamlike quality. The neon lit labyrinth corridors of nightclubs and 'interiors' that it is set within is deliriously reminiscent of Nolan’s piling dreamscapes from Inception. Many dens of opulence also feature depicted with an OCD attention to detail and artistic arrangement, giving it a very 'designed' look, symmetrical and clinical and as a consequence completely out of whack. Violence and torture seem to linger at every corner however, waking the film up from its otherwise comatose state. It’s an unbearable atmosphere to be sure. It is also a film of absolutes, black and white, men and women. There may be grey area, but there is only ever one way out.     

So I’ve talked a lot about Ryan Gosling in the beginning of this piece, and it’s probably bad form, to now suggest, that this isn’t really a Ryan Gosling film. Sure it has him brandishing his dukes on the poster, but this isn’t the Ryan Gosling vehicle that Drive was. It is a fact that Gosling was not originally intended to star in the film, only doing so, when another actor (supposedly English actor attached to the Hobbit) dropped out at the last moment (probably not Martin Freeman...). Julian does have that strand of morality that was indicative of the Driver, when he admits to his mother that he believes his brother deserved to die after what he did. Part of the brilliance of Drive was in how the driver's blue eyed innocence and heroic entitlement ultimately causes more trouble than its worth. In comparison, Only God Forgives, Julian has that mentality but struggles to enforce it due to his bizarre relationship with his mother.   

Kristin Scott Thomas, in an uncharacteristic role that could only be described as a 'toxic mega cunt'. 
Gosling, who probably has all but twelve lines in the piece is outstaged by this fellow leads. Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother Crystal is a highly detestable though dominating presence. She's a bastion of fakery, botoxed face, fake breasts, fake tan and leopard skin dresses. We question if she even cares for her remaining son and everywhere you feel that she has damaged her remaining son extensively, to the point that no third act resolution or inspiring montage can repair. Freud would have a field day because there is a very creepy Oedipus complex at work, and though he doesn't stab his eyes out, he does get them bruised which sets alarm bells ringing. 

Meanwhile Vithaya Pansringham as Chang puts in a horrifically magnetic performance – a puritanical presence dressed completely in black, with white collar, giving him a godly feeling of authority and principle. Chang has all the menace of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh with all the temperance of a samurai. With Crystal as the mother, there is an argument to suggest that Chang provides the paternal streak. In a sense Only God Forgives is a traditional movie, in that it is a film where the good guys win. But the way in which Chang administers justice is enough to feel sorry for scumbag victim. The humid mean streets of Bangkok is very much his jungle, and everybody else is just prey. This is his movie.  

Don't mess with this guy. Be good to one another, eat your vegetables and pay your taxes. 

As with Drive, the music is once again provided by Cliff Martinez. His score to the film’s climatic fight scene contains spiraling synths and doom mongering church organs. It sounds as if it comes straight out of a John Carpenter flick. It is probably safe to assume that it will soon feature as the soundtrack of another flashy car advert. Something silver and exquisitely designed, driving around a faceless city at night. 

Many critics seem to suggest the film is about guilt. Me? I think it’s a bit simpler than that. It’s about strangers in a strange and distant land. This land isn’t just physical but internal, a seedy neon lit labyrinth that infringes on the borders of sanity. It shows how its characters becoming estranged from each other and themselves and therefore completely and utterly doomed from the outset. But if you can rise above it, by leading a righteous life and follow all that toil and gratuitous violence with a modest karaoke performance, you should be fine.    

Some viewers were put off by Drive when that film had a distinct lack of driving. Similarly, Only God Forgives will have a misleading effect, though it will mislead the fans of Drive. This obviously puts the film’s prospective audience into a far smaller niche. Drive was tangible, it had emotion and the levity of resolution, Only God Forgives is coldly intangible with exception to the scenes of gushing violence, and for that reason it will not be for everybody. I’m not even sure it’s for me...

As I said before, this is a film where the good guy wins. But it is a nightmarishly claustrophobic piece, a lucid fever dream punctuated by scenes of distressing violence juxtaposed with nonchalant karaoke sessions. Things happen, things are said, even explained, but you are still left questioning whether anything you experience is actually real. It may be worth a second viewing for the latent symbolism to synapse. As of now, there simply has been no other film released this year that has lingered in my imagination with such a delirious impact. This must be what it means to observe the wrath of God from afar. Quite an impression, even if you don't quite believe in it... 

Thought I'd just finish this piece with a picture of a puppy. Y'know, for levity?

And who doesn't love this scene from Drive?

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