REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

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I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.

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THE EVER-PRESENT STARE…

The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.

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Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.

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See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.

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Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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By the way, still staring…

REVIEW: “Drive”

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The opening scene of “Drive” is a slick and stylistic introduction to what the rest of the film aims to be – a tense yet deliberate car driving action picture. The opening scene happens to be one of the film’s best and its one of the few scenes that could be called memorable. But that’s not saying “Drive” is a bad movie. It has several things going for it. But underneath the crafty and stylish surface lies a fairly simple and conventional action film. From its lead character to the story development, everything moves along at a pretty measured pace with a straightforward narrative. Yet in the end I never connected with it like many others have.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for an assortment of shady characters. He’s only refered to as “the driver” or “the kid”. Gosling’s dialogue is sparse and he is required to reveal his character mainly through expressions and actions. We never get any background information on him and his character really isn’t fleshed out all that well. But in a way I liked that. I liked drawing my own conclusions based on his associations, occasional turns towards violence, and his compassion for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor from his apartment building with whom he begins a relationship. Their relationship consists of several scenes of the two looking and grinning at each other along with the occasional afternoon drive. Irene is raising her young son while her husband is away in prison and the driver is instantly attached to them both.

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Mood lighting + a toothpick = The Goz

Their growing relationship hits a speed bump when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison. Standard genuinely wants to turn his life around but some old debts make that a little hard. The driver agrees to help Standard mainly due to his affection for Irene and her son. Albert Brooks is good as mob guy Bernie Rose who, along with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman), are tied into Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a garage owner who supplies the driver with getaway jobs. Brooks’ character is the prototypical mob “bad guy” but with his own idiosyncrasies. He provides some fantastic scenes but unfortunately he all but disappears through the middle of the film. That’s a shame because I would love to see him get a little more screen time.

As I mentioned, “Drive” and its story are pretty straightforward. There’s not much that broadsides you nor is there anything that calls for your extra attention. There’s nothing especially unique and there aren’t any big surprises with the exception of a couple of brutally violent scenes that can be quite jarring. Speaking of the violence, it’s implementation into the movie is actually quite strange. The more graphic scenes of violence tend to involve lower level characters but what should be the more important scenes seem to be depicted through shadows, quick cut-aways, or far off camera shots. I feel this was obviously a stylistic choice but I found it more puzzling than engaging.

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A look we see about 150 times in “Drive”

Speaking of style, “Drive” looks fantastic. Director Nicolas Winding Refn cleverly uses light and camera angles to give the picture its own unique look. The driving scenes from inside the car look great with Refn transitioning from one camera angle to another with an artistic flare. And yet with all he’s trying to do, he never loses control of his camera whether in a high-speed car chase or a conversation at the dinner table. I also loved his use of sound. Many times he cuts the music and just let’s the natural sound effects carry the scene. “Drive” is just an all-around technically impressive picture.

While it seems I’ve been a little hard on “Drive” and it’s almost run-of-the-mill action movie storyline, I was drawn to many things in the picture. The opening scene does an amazing job grabbing its audience and immediately getting them involved. And while the story may lack a real feel of originality, I see it more as an homage to not only several particular films but to a specific style of movies. I also found myself interested and invested throughout. I think the performances are uniformly strong. Gosling is given the most restrictions but he manages to do a nice job. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as always and Brooks, Cranston, and Isaac are particularly good. Like I said, there’s plenty to like about “Drive”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS