Sometimes you go to the cinema and the film is so loud and busy that you won’t notice people walking into the screening late, or the munching of food, or the mumbling of others. Not me personally, I seem to have heightened sensory awareness when watching a film and any distraction sets my teeth on edge. Still, I doubt even God would have forgave the amount of noise evident in last night’s cinema showing of Only God Forgives, the new film from Pusher/Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Above all else, this film is about MOOD. It’s sometimes very loud, but only when it wants to be. There is a lot of space and a lot of silence. This is a film that when it began, I wanted to lose myself in it. I wanted to be part of the film. The film’s doing its part, being shown on a huge screen. The cinema screening room’s also playing its role, shrouded in darkness and delivering big fat stereo sound. I’m playing my part, being quiet and eyes on the screen. So what about the frankly piss-taking amount of people who arrived up to ten/fifteen minutes late, wandering around like zombies, albeit zombies with, I tell no lie, torches to guide their way to an available seat. Seriously, FUCK OFF! I’d be mortified if I walked into a screening late and would do my best to shuffle quietly to the nearest available seat so as to not to distract anyone else. But no, these muppets felt the need to wave their torches around and blind me and my fellow attendee. They also walked directly in front of the screen. Sorry mate, I paid to see Ryan Gosling, not your silhouette. This torch thing must be a new craze in timekeeping-challenged people, as more than one group of people had the bloody things. I thought it might have been the usher (oh, how quaint that term seems in this day and age) guiding them to their seats, but no, it was people who seemed to have brought their own torches. Not even mobile phones with the display light on. Actual bloody torches. Okay, I might have been mistaken. I was trying to concentrate on the film and I wanted to look at these latecomers as little as possible, so maybe they weren’t torches.
Now I know that most blockbuster-chain cinemas these days don’t seem to have actual ticket desks anymore, and by that I mean ticket desks that exclusively sell tickets. No, these days you have to join the queue for the food counter, so that you can ‘conveniently’ get your film ticket and your overpriced cauldrons of popcorn/vats of soft drink all at once. Except I don’t want to buy food, I just want to pay to see the film, and since your self-service machine never seems to like my unlimited card (a subscription that allows you to see as many films as you want for a monthly fee), I have to join the queue. Where was I? Oh yes, that might be the reason for arriving in the screen late, as sometimes the queues can delay you. But for those who turned up around fifteen minutes late? Well, sorry but the queues aren’t THAT bad. These people are just being slack. And I’m starting to think that Hitchcock’s demand that ‘no one will be admitted into the theatre’ after the start of each screening of Psycho had started was a bloody good idea.
There was also the bloke loudly rummaging around his popcorn early on. Still, there’s not many easy ways of negotiating your way through popcorn and being silent at the same time, and the cinemas are selling this stuff, so I guess it’s all legitimate behaviour. Very annoying though, given the mood of the film. If it was during something like the new Michael Bay movie, I wouldn’t have noticed. Saying that, I wouldn’t be watching the new Michael Bay movie, so he can eat smelly crunchy nachos for all I care. During a film like Only God Forgives, I think food should be banned. I guess this kind of thinking is the reason I’m not the manager of a cinema chain.
So what about the film? First of all, thank you for reading this far. Secondly, this is not the kind of film I will only watch once. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. I did think it was strong cinema, the kind that just grabbed me with its visceral punch. It’s what I expected from the director of Drive but closer to what I expected from the director of Valhalla Rising, which is the weird, vague and striking historical oddity from a couple of years back. For those who have only seen Drive and want more of the same, they could be disappointed. Drive, for all its style and emphasis on mood, was also a pretty accessible and straightforward film that blended the artistic and the commercial very nicely. Only God Forgives is also rather straightforward in terms of plot, but way out there in terms of execution. Its opening credits are in Thai for god’s sake. That might have set alarm bells ringing for those whose only knowledge of the film came from its trailers, which promised a balls-out, tough as nails thriller. Then we get mood. A lot of it. Static shots. Actors acting like they’re on stage. It seems very mannered. Posed. The soundtrack is alien, strange, heavy on atmosphere. The lighting throughout is extremely dark, filtered in deep, queasy reds and ambers.
Forget Ryan Gosling’s Julian, the first character we really follow is his brother, a sick bastard who goes to a brothel to request some time with a fourteen year old girl. Rebuffed by the pimp, he then he goes somewhere else and does something unspeakable. What follows could be a revenge thriller, albeit one where the avenged is a scumbag and the so-called avenger doesn’t seem to have really liked or cared about his brother. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Gosling’s performance here is interesting to say the least. Clearly riffing off of the cool, calm, quiet enigma he nailed in Drive, here he’s initially passive to the point of comatose. It’s a performance that has been criticised, to the point where it’s been dismissed as a ‘non-performance’. I’m erring closer to the belief that it is a very good performance, one where less is definitely more. His delivery totally suits the film, which is all visual. All action. Even if the action is reduced to a look or a glance for most of the time. You know in Drive when Gosling’s Driver does one thing, then does that, and you can feel his motivation and, yes, drive, for doing so? Well, we don’t really get that here. We don’t really get under Julian’s skin. But you know what? Given the whole feel of the film, which is very sparse and wide open for interpretation, I didn’t really have a problem. His character is almost a blank, but it’s a blank canvas, and you can add what you want to it. If you want. We don’t really get to work out the inner mechanics of many of these characters, with the possible exception of Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, who essentially runs the show – her sons run the martial arts venue and deal drugs on the side (actually it’s closer to the reverse of that), but it’s Mama’s operation, and she clearly wants revenge. We’re not really sure what Julian wants. Her character is pretty repulsive. One scene involving her meeting Julian’s ‘girlfriend’ (a beautifully sensual turn from Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) for the first time is a textbook example of how not to greet a prospective daughter-in-law. We do get under her skin though, even if it’s not a pleasant place. The one main figure of justice is pretty psychotic, brandishing a sword at every possible moment. In this film, bad guys do good things. Good guys do bad things. In fact, mentioning good guys and bad guys seems ultimately pointless in a review for a film like this. Character wise, there’s difficulty latching on to something reliable.
I’m not going to go into specifics about the plot, because frankly a straight relaying would make the film sound more prosaic than it actually is, and also because the wild detours into what could be flights of character’s imagination may mean something, it may not. It might just look great. It might just mean a visual punch. I think some people are going to hate this film. Some are going to love it. I was very curious as to what the other people in the screening I attended thought of it. One thing’s for certain – the trailer is misleading. Anyone wanting the ultimate smackdown are going to be annoyed. Anyone wanting Drive 2 will be let down. The violence in Drive was shocking, but it had a charge to it – sometimes perversely thrilling, sometimes horrific and upsetting. The violence here is very brutal but strangely remote. One character has unspeakable things done to him with a bunch of hairpins but although it’s obviously grotesque, it’s strangely impersonal. The film burns with an undercurrent of impending violence but the releases, when they happen, are not on the same lines of other ultraviolent films. For all the talk of this being boundary-pushing in regards to screen nastiness, this is not unwatchable or disgustingly gratuitous. Oh yes, it’s not pleasant, far from it, and there are a couple of very gruesome shots, but overall, this delivers more on impact and sounds and mid-shots rather than anything unrelentingly disgusting. Apart from those couple of gruesome shots. They ARE nasty.
I did like this film though. It will bore some people. It’s so serenely paced, and even the relatively high-voltage moments of violence are delivered without the expected charge. There are probably more karaoke scenes in a ninety-minute film than most people will tolerate. The ending is expectedly vague. The film is debted to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who directed among other films, The Holy Mountain, which may be the most insane film ever made. One thing that cannot be denied is that this film is a fantastic wash of technical excellence. The lighting drags you deep, deep down into this underworld. The versatile soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is stunning, ranging from intense attacks of percussion to quite beautiful synth-textures. The film gripped me even though it is not, in any conventional sense, gripping. It is exceptionally cinematic.
PS: Whilst writing this review, an advert on the telly promoted Sun +, an online app that lets you catch up on all the footy goals and highlights wherever you are. The ad proceeded to show a variety of locations where you might want to do this. One of the potential spots was a in a darkened cinema. That’s right, this paper was suggesting you catch up on the footy during a film. Well done, The Sun, you are even more shitty now than you were before I started writing this review.