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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 26, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 30
Refn's Only God is frustratingly hard to forgive
Arts & Entertainment
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Refn's Only God is frustratingly hard to forgive

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Now showing


American expat Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing club in Thailand with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). It is a front for their narcotics business, the pair part of an international organization fronted by their domineering, all-powerful mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).

After raping and murdering an underage prostitute, Billy is killed by the girl's grief-stricken father under the direction of a seemingly godly local detective, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Freshly arrived from the U.S., Crystal demands justice for her favorite son, showering expletives and putdowns upon Julian for not taking revenge upon the officer. Conflicted, he must decide if Chang is the villain his mother perceives and if justice would be served with his murder, his familial loyalty put to the ultimate test as this wraithlike warrior of judgment closes in getting ready to draw his sword of vengeance down upon the both of them.

PRETTY VACANT
Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to his cult favorite Drive, the writer/director reteaming with that film's star, Gosling. While not the borderline masterpiece their first effort was, this sophomore exploit does fit very much in line with many of the filmmaker's previous works, most notably the almost silent Viking-era thriller Valhalla Rising. Spectacularly photographed in a hazy series of reds, blues, and greens by cinematographer Larry Smith (The Guard), featuring an aggressively visceral score filled with Thai influences by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, The Company You Keep), the movie is nonetheless a threadbare, minimalist shell devoid of character, plot, or nuance, and as pretty as it all might be visually, the fact that there's just no there there is readily apparent almost from the start.

In some ways it seems as if Refn set out to remake Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad but with a bloody, revenge-fueled martial-arts twist. The movie is all show, little heft, the whole thing a series of machismo-filled images, one crashing against the other with Machiavellian-tinged influences sprinkled liberally throughout. Unlike Drive, and nothing like Pusher or Bronson, there is no undercurrent of thought-provoking emotional duress adding to the equation, and as aggressively beefed-up and beautiful as all of this looks and sounds never once did I attach myself to anything taking place.

What was the point? Why should I care? Does the outcome matter? Where should my feelings lie? These questions and more kept assaulting me throughout, and by and large no answers were forthcoming. The whole movie postures, it harangues and it caterwauls, it saunters and it struts, it does all of that and more, but not once does it connect, at least not for any lasting period of time, and while the images themselves can be rather haunting the emptiness pervading the entire enterprise wasn't something I could shake.

ONE BRIGHT SPOT
Well, that's not entirely fair. Rhatha Phongam has some rather intensely effective moments as Maï, a Thai prostitute with a deep, unexplainable connection to Julian leading to some striking sequences, most notably in how they silently move, mix, and touch one another speaking more with their eyes than they do with anything else. She also has a great showdown scene at a dinner table with the always-superb Thomas, her Shakespearean monstrosity toying with her beleaguered son's most prized treasure in a blitzkrieg of carnal insensitivity that's explosively unsettling.

In all honesty, though, that's really about it far as the excellent stuff is concerned. While there are some interesting scenes sprinkled throughout, while it goes without saying that Refn is a dynamic filmmaker who knows how to push buttons and excels at making his audience uncomfortable, if there isn't a reason to care about the outcome, what does it matter if these moments have individual power or not? When the conclusion is forgettable, when the outcome is of no concern, the bits in the middle play like intriguing disconnected vignettes more than anything else, the lack of substance an omnipresent failing keeping the movie in neutral pretty much throughout.

I have a feeling I will revisit Only God Forgives at some point in the future, and maybe when I do my opinions toward it will soften. But right now, I just can't grasp what exactly it was Refn felt he was shooting for, his theological musings a twisted muddle of platitude and cliché filled with bluster but with nothing of substance to back it all up. It's empty, pretty much every second of it, and while the filmmaking is impressive from a technical standpoint, the storytelling powering it all is frustratingly anything but.

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