Only God Forgives: Resisting our empathy

July 18, 2013

Only God Forgives
Grade: 82
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Rating: R, for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language
Running time: 90 minutes

Cinema is light and sound and motion and time. The filmmaker presents it on a screen, you take it into your head and make of it what you will.

If you are conventional, like me, you try to fit the pieces of this dazzling sensory puzzle into a mosaic that makes sense to you, knowing what you know about how human beings are (assuming the move has within its elements something that can be made to stand for human beings) and the things you have experienced in your life. You try to relate to the characters on the screen, to vicariously enter their universe and share their story. At least that is what I try to do most of the time when I am watching a movie.

But I know that there are movies that resist my empathy, that mean to seal me out and hold me at arm’s length. Only God Forgives is such a movie, a movie that does not care what I think about it, a movie that does not much care if anyone understands why it exists. I can respect a movie like that, but I can’t love it. You might be braver and smarter than me.

There is a coherent story here, down beneath the neon-drunk humming murk, though there is no perceptible joy in its telling. As I watched the film, my friend suggested there was a rule the actors were abiding by — one had to wait 10 seconds after another actor had spoken a line before responding. I cannot tell you if this is true or not because I would have to re-watch the first half of Only God Forgives and there are better ways I might spend my time.

It is odd for me to feel so neutral about this movie. I was among those who liked the style and noirish wit of Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, Drive. I love some of David Lynch’s excesses, I have never met a Wong Kar-Wai Wong film I didn’t like. I am (usually) comforted by the chilly formalism of Michael Haneke.

Though I understood that people had hooted and jeered and stomped out when Only God Forgives was screened at Cannes, I expected that I would be among those who would have stood and cheered it at the end. I often find myself approving of movies that engage us in terrible and specific ways — Refn understands the horrific visual dynamics of violence, the coarse and ugly tug of it. My favorite scene in Only God Forgives is a brief one of Gosling dragging a man down a hallway, an action that is so common in our movies that it has become a kind of comic trope. But there is no comedy in this scene. It is all animal gloat and shame, a domination ritual. And it is one of the few scenes in the movie that feels true and honest.

That said, the plot: Julian (Gosling) is a taciturn criminal, a drug smuggler who owns a Muay Thai fighting venue as a front in modern Thailand. He has an older brother, Billy (Tom Burke), whom he apparently despises, who rapes and murders an underage prostitute. For his trouble Billy is murdered himself, and the murdered girl’s father (who may also be the girl’s pimp) is mutilated by the karaoke-singing Angel of Death, a Thai police office whose real name is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian and Billy’s mother shows up in the form of Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, vamping violently against type). Crystal is a lacerating prop who demands her own vengeance, while Julian is a nearly silent tool onto which Refn projects different flavors of colored light.

Refn, I imagine, could tell you that his movie is about the style displayed, that it’s a deconstruction of cinema, that he’s not really very interested in whatever human emotions his non-characters are not displaying. And that is all right, I guess, people are free to make whatever sort of movies they want to make and to explore whatever ideas they want to explore. And I know there will be hundreds and maybe thousands of people who will embrace Only God Forgives if for no other reason than it refuses to show them the usual thing.

I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s dull, and a product of an imagination that is very much pleased with itself. I found it pretty easy to see around the sides of the operation and was entertained by thinking about how some shots were accomplished. Refn knows what he is doing, and though I’m not sure why he’s doing it, he probably has a rationale.

It’s not the violence that bothers me in Only God Forgives, it’s the apparently purposeful soullessness of the project. What someone said: Light and noise, signifying nothing.

What someone else said: Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

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