As part of Complex Pop Culture's year-in-review coverage, staffers will pen short pieces on what deflated their highest expectations and hopes the most in 2013. This series continues with senior staff writer Matt Barone.
Seconds after seeing Drive for the first time, at a press screening in mid-2011, my reaction was, to say the least, hyperbolic. The sentiment, no matter how I worded it to whomever I spoke to, echoed the thought of, "That's the best movie of the year," or, "I highly doubt I'll see a better movie this year." And, as it turned out, that prediction held true throughout the remainder of 2011. Drive blindsided me, topping any expectations I had as a result of already liking star Ryan Gosling's acting and director Nicolas Winding Refn's previous films, namely the insane Kubrickian biopic Bronson and the hallucinogenic fever dream that is Valhalla Rising. You could say I was predisposed to enjoying Drive before the movie even began, but could I have expected such a beautifully designed, occasionally brutal, and altogether hypnotic film? I certainly did not.
To be fair, my hopes were perhaps too unrealistic heading into this year's Only God Forgives, the second Gosling/Refn collaboration. The expectation was to experience another Drive, if not thematically or concept-wise, then, at least, in artistic fortitude. That feeling of exiting the theater after seeing Drive was one of those rare moments, a cinematically fueled high on which I was frantically Google-searching the buoyant '80s-pop-inspired songs I'd just heard (i.e., College's "A Real Hero," Desire's "Under Your Spell") and replaying those images and sequences Refn so meticulously staged. The promise of Only God Forgives being much grislier and more violent than Drive only heightened the excitement. Whereas Drive subverts the old Lee Marvin/Charles Bronson type of storytelling with visual decadence and less dialogue, Only God Forgives, it seemed, would tweak the macho, fists-into-face edge of old martial arts flicks and tough-guy cinema into Refn's brand of assaulting auteurism.
Only, it didn't. That first time seeing Only God Forgives at a press screening? The exact opposite of the first Drive viewing. Refn's latest film just sat there on the screen, hardly ever waking up from its borderline pretentious aesthetic. Ryan Gosling was there, too, but having seemingly been lobotomized, making his quiet, contemplative character in Drive seem like Kevin Hart. Terrible actions were happening caused by terrible people, but none of it held any weight. Only God Forgives opens with Gosling's character, Julian, overseeing a Muay Thai fight club in Bangkok, Thailand, walking around and staring at people, as if he just wandered onto the wrong movie set. He looks over at his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), with what might be discontent, or boredom, or vapidness. Billy then says, "Time to meet the devil," before heading off to a brothel to smash a bottle over the proprietor's head attack the prostitutes, eventually ending up in a hotel room where he murders a 16-year-old hooker.
And how does Gosling react to the loss of his brother? Like this:
Which mirrors every other reaction he has in Only God Forgives, all of which resemble this:
The comeuppance Billy receives receives powers the rest of Only God Forgives, with a police lieutenant, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), serving as the long, sword-wielding arm of God, taking out Julian's operation, including his tyrannical mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). But none of it clicked for me. Because Refn has a fine eye for composition, Only God Forgives looks stunning, all bright colors, wide-angle shots, and slow-paced zooms, and the haunting, brooding score, by composer Cliff Martinez (who also scored Spring Breakers), lends the film a much-needed air of menace. His soundtrack highlight "Wanna Fight" is a frantic, mesmerizing marriage of Transylvanian goth and supercharged trance that brings life to an otherwise well-choreographed but dull fight scene.
As an art installation piece, Refn's film would be perfect for projecting onto a gallery's walls, the background imagery for a night full of ambiance. But as a feature film? It's a non-starter, one that aims to provoke yet only lulls you into catatonia.
As Only God Forgives ends, there's an on-screen note saying that Refn dedicates his film to friend and idol Alejandro Jodorowsky, the one-of-a-kind Chilean filmmaker responsible for the midnight movie classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The mention of Jodorowsky left me confused. "Wait a second," I said to myself, "I love Jodorowsky's movies. So why didn't I like this?" It's true, too—Only God Forgives is, like El Topo, a mystifier predicated on all of its non-conformity. The characters are intentionally impenetrable. The story is purposefully oblique, with Refn, like Jodorowsky, concerning himself more with creating mind-burning images than connecting with viewers on a plot level. The difference, however, between the two directors being that Jodorowsky's films thrive on a peculiar energy—even at their indecipherable, his films feel alive. Only God Forgives, though, is too plodding to elicit the same kind of responses El Topo generates.
Refn doesn't channel midnight movie godfathers like Jodorowksy and David Lynch—unintentionally, he's only able to channel the audiences watching Only God Forgives via Ryan Gosling's one-note expressions. This is me every time I watch the film, minus the bruises and welts:
Notice how I just wrote "every time." Indeed, I've now watched Only God Forgives three times, none of which have triggered much enjoyment. There's morbid curiosity, yes, but no pleasure. Maybe in time, when multiple years have allowed me to be more lenient towards the film, I'll have an epiphany and start hailing Only God Forgives as a misunderstood masterwork. That's what happened with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and, more fitting here, Jodorowsky's El Topo. El Topo went right over my head the first time I watched it, gradually winning me over in subsequent viewings. Now, I recognize it as a work of bizarre genius.
Will I feel the same about Only God Forgives eventually? You never know, but my gut says no. I've already seen the kind of singular, gonzo beauty Nicolas Winding Refn can make with Ryan Gosling, and it's called Drive. Sometimes, greatness like that needn't be duplicated.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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