BY CLAIRE WARD-BEVERIDGE
I’ve been mulling over in my mind what to say about Only God Forgives since I saw it over the weekend. Trying to come up with a cohesive way to explain such opinions feels like trying to untangle a mass of angry snakes.
The first time I saw the trailer, I was in a theatre. As a general rule, trailers seen in theatres possess that extra special cachet of being powerfully affecting (at least compared to watching a Quicktime file on apple.com). if only because everything is bigger and louder. So when I saw said trailer, I was excited about what a Drive 2.0 -type of project could be plus Kristin Scott Thomas as a sexy villain! Turns out, it can be fairly hilariously awful.
From the get-go, I was mostly alternately confused and annoyed. I didn’t know too much about the overall plot and themes of the film, only that it was set in east Asia and revolved around some sort of criminal dealings along with torture and violence, probably some sex. And I was mostly right. Ryan Gosling plays a young US ex-pat living in Bangkok who runs a boxing ring, which also services a drug ring. His brother is murdered and his insane crime-boss mother eventually gets involved.
Some of my thoughts as I was taking all of this in: we’ve got some opening titles in Thai, as well as lots of reds and oranges, pinks and blacks. There are overly long (like, held to viewers’ breaking points) scenes and shots of physical actions of characters — simple actions like removing cuff links, walking across a room. And there’s blood. Lots of blood. And it’s slightly pink-hued to make everything more sensational and less horrific. Also, sinister ambient music underlies every scene and in this kind of film (a bad film), that sort of constant stylistic shit is such a CHEAT, in my opinion. It distracts and maintains a consistency that’s altogether too easily achieved and too obvious to those who are able to see it critically. It’s easy to perceive such flimsy, staid writing when there’s so, so much style being pounded into your face and ears.
Gosling is a serious actor. Serious in that he appears to choose his roles very carefully and serious in that he is often portraying dour, restrained characters with corresponding emotional reactions. Generally this works for him — he obviously gives a shit about his craft and he is both emotional and restrained when the scene calls for it. In this film, however, his “seriousness” seems absurd, complete with extreme close-ups of furrowed brows and barely a flicker of emotion during violent montages. Is he supposed to be more or less a blank canvas on which we, the audience, are to project our feelings? Or has his deadpan been pushed from a style which carries a strange depth (as seen in Drive) to something far altogether ridiculous and boring? I really can’t tell.
Honestly, I really couldn’t tell what the fuck Winding Refn was trying to say or do with this film in any conceivable facet. All I could muster in my head were words and sentence fragments that he perhaps used in a pitch to producers, or that writers are perhaps using to describe it now in their reviews: ultra-violent, oedipal complexes, inexplicable sex, silly gore, pretension, and clumsily-inserted Lynchian motifs and images (that last one is mine). When the credits rolled I almost felt embarrassed for liking Drive so much. One thing’s for sure: the man in charge of all of this should never, ever write another screenplay.
Claire Ward-Beveridge is a freelance writer & photographer who lives in North Parkdale, Toronto and her rattled brain. She loves Werner Herzog and depressing English dramas. Follow her @clairewarb.