Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

Only God Forgives!! Only…GOD!!…Fffff…ooorrrrrr…GIIIIIVVVEEESSSSSS…

SPOILER ALERT.  You’ve been warned.

As you must know by now, I have been waiting for the release of Only God Forgives for…oh…forever…since Drive, really.  And the day finally arrived!  Friday, July 19th, two hours before my mom’s 60th birthday (Happy Birthday, Mom! You look fabulous!), I found myself sitting in the slightly sticky seats at my beloved Laemmle 4 in Santa Monica, one of the handful of theaters in Los Angeles, and the nation, where you can see this film.

When we first sat down, the theater was practically empty.  But during the previews, hordes of barely-adult boys began filing in, until the theater was close to capacity.  Every once in a while you’d see one couple over thirty (like ourselves), looking slightly sheepish at being surrounded by a bunch of teenagers in twee gangs, guys and girls alike outfitted in large, knitted caps, burn-out tee shirts, obligatory thick, black glasses, and skinny jeans.  We hoped that we would be spared any close contact, but alas, alack, three guys and their token girl (a bored lassie scrolling through Facebook in Korean the entire time—which is actually pretty cool looking) sat in front of us and proceeded to blab about their film knowledge.  Ahhhh, joy.

I started to squirm and roll my eyes, looking for the exits, until Paul jabbed me with his elbow and smilingly, silently, ordered me to stop being so judge-y.  Sigh. Oh, all right.

And the film begins, and suddenly the theater goes blessedly quiet…

Now, this film has already become infamous due to one or more of these three descriptions:

a)      It is incredibly violent! Basically a cinematic wank for Refn!

b)     It fucking sucks—basically a cinematic wank for Refn.

c)      It is mind-blowingly awesome!! A cinematic masterpiece!!!

But before we get to which one of the three that I would say, if any, let’s talk about this: I have a sneaking suspicion that somebody out there is a fucking marketing genius…that is, if said marketing genius’s goal was to completely thwart theatergoers in their expectations, thus starting these films out with strikes against them before we even GET to the fact that they’re not the most approachable at times.  Let me explain.

Julian (Ryan Gosling), owns a type of Thai fight club.  His vicious asshole of a brother has been murdered, and a krabi-wielding cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) had a part in this death.  Julian could really care less, as there is no love lost between these sibs, but his tyrant drug-lord mother, Crystal (a deliciously trashy Kristen Scott Thomas) guilt-trips him into seeking revenge.

So that’s the premise.  And if you’ve seen the trailers, you know it’s going to be action-packed! Swords slicing the air, thudding music (God, but I love Cliff Martinez), stony, masculine stares, sexy female thighs, and the climax of the thirty seconds…Julian almost good-naturedly asking his nemesis, “Wanna fight?” Cut to bright red fonts screaming the film’s name!!!

Sounds pretty exciting, eh? There’s gonna be a SHOWDOWN!!!

Yeah, I bet that’s what those gangs of teenagers thought too.

So imagine their stunned surprise when Nicolas Winding Refn delivers…

one…of the…slowest…paced…action??…films…ever…to…grace…the…silver…screen…in a long…long…time.

It’s almost like he commanded everyone involved in this film to pretend they were doing performance art in molasses, with the one notable exception being Crystal, whose loud, nasal voice, vibrant blond hair, and hot pink nails, is incredibly jarring amongst the rest of the somber characters.  The dialogue is halting and sparse (I think one critic stated that Gosling had 11 lines), the pauses interminable.  The faces of the actors stay supremely neutral for the most part, unless they’re about to be chopped up, of course.  The camera work even follows suit—tracking shots move at a snail’s pace through a room, taking approximately 15-20 seconds to travel some 10 feet and Brey-focus pulls abound.**

And that’s just the pacing.  Let’s talk about Gosling’s character.  We imagine, from the trailer, that Julian is ostensibly going to kick some Thai cop ASS!! But in fact, Refn has popped open the silver cloche and delivered a steaming pile of wussy mama’s boy with an Oedipus complex who actually cannot fight for shit, and spends most of the film fantasizing about what he’d like to do, whether that’s dragging a man down a hallway by his teeth or digging his hands into an exotic dancer’s nether regions.  He ain’t the hero, folks, sorry! Nothin’ to see here.

Dammit. Why does Ma always make ME take the trash out?

Dammit. Why does Ma always make ME take the trash out?

In case you’re wondering, neither of these things are a problem for me.  I LIKE the slow pacing.  I LIKE the fact that our idea of Gosling being the hero is up-ended.  I even liked the violence.  And by the way, the violence was nowhere near what it’s being made out to be.  Have you SEEN Irreversible?? Enough said.  Actually, I take that back—not enough said.  We just watched Valhalla Rising last night, which was Refn’s 2009 film about Christian Crusaders (yes, yes it is), and it is FAR more violent than Only God Forgives.  So I’m surprised that people are making such a big deal about the supposed violence in this film.

But back to my marketing theory.  Now think about Drive.  When I first saw the trailer for that, I thought, “Oh Lord, another Fast and Furious type film…whoop dee fuckin’ doo dah.”  Silly me! But I eventually saw the light and the film, and LOVED it, and I remember thinking, “Damn! I wonder how many teenage boys saw that trailer and thought, ‘Awesome!! I’m SO seeing that!’ only to leave the theater saying, ‘That fucking SUCKED!!’” Which is exactly what the teenage boys at Only God Forgives were saying, by the way.

I’d like to THINK it was Refn himself setting up this grand disappointment and getting a wee giggle when the audiences revolt.  Ahhh, that’s a fun idea.  But unfortunately it’s most likely this answer—the studios don’t know what to do with these films, so they’re marketing them ENTIRELY incorrectly and thus setting them up for failure amongst the masses.  These films are not mainstream.  They are not “action” films.  They should not be purported as such.  And no, I’m not saying that this is the only reason for the less-than-happy reactions to Only God Forgives…but it sure doesn’t fucking help.  Do I think it’s got its issues? Absolutely.  Do I think it’s worth watching? Absolutely.

Having now seen three of Refn’s films, I think I’m getting a feel for him as a director, and I’m becoming a real fan.  This guy, bless his heart, has something to say, and he’s saying it.  He seems to enjoy juxtaposition and ironies—a guy who owns a boxing club yet cannot fight; the fact that we expect Julian to be the hero who saves the day, and yet he is utterly impotent; the lighting—blues and reds next to one another (straight out of Dario Argento territory); an action/thriller film that is relentlessly plodding and stoic.  These things all intrigue me, and I want to see more from him.  I didn’t LOVE Only God Forgives—not yet, at least.  I’m going to need to see it again.  Certainly Drive had a more immediate response for me. But I liked it, and I admire Refn enough to give it a second glance.  Despite the pacing, the tension was kept wire-taut the entire time, which I appreciate.  There was an Eyes Wide Shut vibe about the whole film, which is probably no real coincidence because the DP, Larry Smith, was the lighting cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.  There are a few scenes that are an almost direct homage to David Lynch, and some Kubrickian elements thrown in as well.  This is all very subtle, by the way, so if you haven’t seen the film (and shit, if you haven’t seen it you’ve now ruined it for yourself by reading this, oy!), let me stress that we are nowhere near Tarantino land here, so don’t worry.

To (finally!) sum up, I get the feeling that Nicolas Winding Refn is a fellow geeky cinephile—he’s one of us.  I could see him working in a video store as a teen and espousing Jodorowsky to unsuspecting seniors who actually just wanted the newest Sandra Bullock film (and Lord knows there is NOTHING wrong with that, chile’).  I had a wee pow-wow with my gorgeous film encyclopedia, Bill Ackerman, a bit before writing this, and he mentioned that Refn had recently purchased all these Andy Milligan films on Ebay and is restoring them and re-circulating them, just because he admires Milligan and his aesthetic so much–all for the love of film and a filmmaker who dares to do what he wants rather than what others expect.  Dig it.

**Brey-focus is a term I’ve now coined for when the shot starts out super fuzzy and slowly comes into focus. I asked my buddy, who is in the “biz,” and he very helpfully stated that there’s no technical term for this, but that I described it very well! (Aw shit, thanks, man!) He then suggested I name it in honor of my dear friend and fellow contributor (and his girlfriend *cough!*) Tracy Breyfogle, so I’m calling it that, and you heard it here first, people.  Brey-focus.  And if there is a true technical term for it, go ahead and post it below.  Go ahead.  Burst my bubble, ya jerk.

One Response to “Only God Forgives!! Only…GOD!!…Fffff…ooorrrrrr…GIIIIIVVVEEESSSSSS…”

  1. This is interesting.

    I interpreted the scene where he places his hands between the legs of the woman as existing in his imagination. I think the colour of his shirt changes as perhaps an indicator, and I interpreted the scene where he drags a man down the hallway as taking place in reality (perhaps because the noise of the two men distracted his active imagination).

    As a wrote, recently, in my own reaction: “I interpret the variance between what Julian imagines doing with his hands and what he actually does with them as hinting toward a sort of disconnect between the person Julian is and the person he desires to be. As Only God Forgives progresses, a question arises which surrounds whether there will be a still further severing between the person Julian is and the person he desires to be or whether, perhaps, he will experience some healing and reintegration.”

    One character represents his further severing. That would be his mother. One character, I believe, represents the possibility of liberation for Julian. That would be Chang.

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