Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives: Drive, by way of Boredom

     Expectations can be a dangerous thing: in 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn created my favorite film of the year, Drive, based on the book of the same name by James Sallis and starring Ryan Gosling as a bad ass wheelman. One of the many complaints about Refn's direction is his overuse of style and lack of any substantive narrative structure, and sometimes it seems he's more concerned with what synth-pop song to play in any given scene than the plot which is actually occurring. But Drive bypassed these concerns, showcasing Refn's signature shooting style with a pulpy plot that suited Ryan Gosling's brooding hero perfectly. Zoom up to present day, and seemingly-best-buds Refn and Gosling have created another arty film that deals with revenge and excessive violence. Unfortunately--this time around--the duo has regressed: Only God Forgives shines on a spotlight on the worst aspects of Refn's direction (his obsession with setting up scenes instead of servicing the story), contains one of the most boring performances of Ryan Gosling's career, and its plot is barely more than people walking from point A to point B bathed in neon light.
     Sure, people bathed in neon light look really pretty, and Refn has never had a problem setting up innovative and exciting camera angles. But it all means nothing if the art-house style makes it difficult for a viewer to hold his/her attention. And that's precisely what happens here. There arn't really characters in Only God Forgives in the traditional sense: they're just cardboard cutouts walking to and fro the next or last blood shed. Ryan Gosling portrays Julian, a man running a boxing club as a front for a drug operation. When his brother gets murdered (deservedly so, I might add), he sort-of seeks revenge with his Queenpin mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, overacting) who has flown into town after she heard the news. But even these descriptions are giving the plot too much credit. These things are less figured out than just "sensed".
    The villain role is played by Vithaya Pansringarm, portraying Lieutenant Chang, also known as the "Angel of Vengeance" (though that surely wasn't a fact that was retained in my mind). He's probably the most interesting character in the film, though that's not saying much--his facial expressions rarely change away from looking completely tranquilized. But he's super good at sticking sharp objects into people, particularly in one totally brutal scene which was cringe-inducing.
     The problem here is so much wasted potential: we know that Refn can creature incredible cinema (Drive), and we know that he can make entertaining films that lack plot (Bronson). Here is a film that has a frustrating plot that simply lacks much entertainment value. Sure, you can praise his directing style: you can call it Lynchian, Kubrickian, or whatever compliment that you can think of. But it doesn't change the fact that a film has to keep you interested. Take Upstream Color, for instance. This 2013 experimental film was completely off the wall, lacking a conventional narrative structure. But it was still very transfixing, and it never made me feel like Only God Forgives made me feel: like I was on a dull acid trip that happened to have occasional flashes of ultra-violence. It's all set-up (sure, gorgeous and wonderfully-filmed set-up) with minimal payoff.     (C-)

No comments:

Post a Comment