Only God Forgives

- It's all in the hands.

– It’s all in the hands.

*Huge spoilers ahead*

After being prepped by Nicholas Winding Refn’s most ‘arty’ film Valhalla Rising, I decided to delve into the latest Ryan Gosling movie! As it happens, I find calling Only God Forgives a Ryan Gosling movie fairly hilarious, since I cannot help but imagine throngs of girls feeling absolutely crestfallen by his character in this movie. The enigmatic badass of Drive has been whisked away, and replaced by a pathetic, envious and conflicted individual with huge mummy issues. More on this later…

Only God Forgives is being met with lukewarm reception, with its few advocates being accused of trying to cling on to just about anything to save this sinking ship of a movie. For my part, I feel very conflicted in my reaction to it; in that I found it fairly unpleasant and boring to watch, but upon reflection and further reading, think that it is trying to do something very difficult. Maybe it doesn’t completely succeed, but the best it can be called is ambitious.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is running a Thai boxing club in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). It quickly becomes obvious that this club is a front for drugs and that Billy is not a very nice person. This is, perhaps, established when he runs amok smacking women around the face in a brothel and then brutally murders a fourteen year old girl who is being prostituted by her father. Retired police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene, giving the father the option to exact vengeance on Billy, which he swiftly takes, with no gore being spared. So goes the first ten minutes.

This is the event the plot of Only God Forgives hinges on. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand and demands that Julian avenge his brother’s death, setting into motion a set of killings and counter-killings that fill that central segment of the movie.

As Julian’s and Chang’s paths gravitate toward one another, we learn more of Julian’s fraught past including the fact that he murdered his father with his bare hands. In the finale, Chang kills Crystal and upon seeing the body, Julian does what every grieving son would do: he slashes open her stomach and put his hands inside her womb.

After this episode, Julian seems somewhat calmer and meets with Chang, who promptly cuts off Julian’s hands with his sword. Chang then sings a traditional Thai song. Fin.

It’s certainly a perplexing plot arc. It is at different points dull, gratuitous, unnecessary, mesmerising, bemusing and seems strangely lacking in something. What that something is, is character. At least, in terms of motives and an understanding of past events. Refn makes very little use of explanatory dialogue in Only God Forgives, instead quite superficially showing us a string of incomprehensible actions. All effect, no cause, in other words.

Twinned with this, is a plot that does not take follow a conventionally satisfying structure. Many events seem invested with a little significance, and most of it can be described as a string of gratuitously violent episodes.

Upon finishing the movie therefore, you just feel a bit empty. I wouldn’t say I felt like I wasted my time (there are certainly some redeeming features) but that the film hadn’t invested events with any kind of personal importance or built up any sympathy for Gosling’s character.

However, it is when you start recounting the story yourself in your own head that it starts to have impact. Julian’s character is the essential key to this movie, but it remains inscrutable until the final scenes. The film meanders because we cannot divest the scenes with any meaning, and we cannot do that because we have very meagre means of appreciating Julian’s motives.

This is a piece of cinema that is drawing attention to one of cinema’s limitations as a primary visual medium. How do you capture the inner demons of a near-mute introvert without resorting to interior monologues or other characters’ input? Only once we find out that Julian killed his own father and was intensely jealous of his brother’s sexual relationship with his mother (!), do the Oedipal building blocks fall into place.

I must credit Chris Stuckmann’s incredible reading of the movie for this: that Julian quite literally has blood on his hands. And plunging his hands into his mother’s womb could signify an attempt to expunge the guilt for his father’s murder. This doesn’t work directly, but Julian takes repentance into his own hands after his mother’s death, having Chang remove the tools that did the deed. With his hands severed, Julian can proceed with a life free from guilt: he has received his forgiveness.

In a movie where the audience are tasked with constructing the main character’s back story, there are bound to be divergences of opinion and interpretation. There are also those who are bound to say that a movie that doesn’t sufficiently explain itself within the confines of its run-time is a failure or else, lazy.

The reason that this movie isn’t a failure however, is that although I was less than enthralled during it; I was thinking about it on the bus to work the next day. I was thinking about it at work. I was thinking about it for days after in fact. Sometimes a film needs the viewer’s supplement to complete it, which in the case of Only God Forgives results in a haunting experience.

And I think I just reviewed a Nicholas Winding Refn film without even mentioning the cinematography. It’s jaw-dropping, go figure.

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

Visually Impeccable – Vahalla Rising

 

Nicholas Winding Refn drew a lot of attention to himself back in 2011 with Drive, and this August, his latest offering Only God Forgives hit the screens. His second film starring Ryan Gostling, it has garnered some divided opinion, most likely due to the fact that it isn’t Drive II, and that many aren’t aware of his trajectory as a director before Drive.

Like many others, Drive was my entry-point into the oeuvre of Winding Refn, but I didn’t want to go ahead and watch Only God Forgives without some grounding in his work as a whole. This is what after all, seemed to be a stumbling block towards appreciating it. So, my first pit-stop is Valhalla Rising, released two years prior to Drive, and renowned for its stunning visual style.

An opening shot of a bleak, craggy, Nordic landscape. A blonde boy with curly locks shoulders a bucket of water and trudges up a hill. There’s a lot of mist, there’s a lot of bearded men standing around ominously, and there’s Mads Mikkelsen (of recent Hannibal fame) chained up by his neck and being daubed in black paint. OK, the composition of the shots is kind of bleak but I can see the beauty…

And then, men start beating the shit out of one another, left, right and centre. Very brutally. The tone suddenly becomes one of pure aggression, as one slave’s brain is caved in and another is strangled in a highly-theatrical manner. We don’t know why Mads’ character ‘One-Eye’ has been captured, but he appears to be little more than a killing machine. It doesn’t help that he is completely mute; in fact, he doesn’t speak one line of dialogue in the entire film.

The key to ‘One-Eye’ is that he has prophetic visions. Many of these are tinted in a red glow that makes for some very unique shots, whilst others jolt onto the screen with abrupt sound effects that make you jump out of your skin. Considering the Nordic setting, this immediately sets up parallels with Oðin, who in Norse mythology has his eye gouged and is given the gift of prophecy.

In short, ‘One-Eye’ escapes his captors, murders them all brutally, and trudges off into the wilderness with the young boy. They meet a group of Christian Vikings, who are making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to form a new Jerusalem. Upon joining this clan, they sail to a land of vastly different scenery; crags and bracken give way to rippling streams and forests.

But all is not what it seems in this beautiful promised land. As the Vikings start to get in touch with nature, giving in to Pagan impulses, they begin to distrust and ultimately, slaughter one another. Strange men caked in orange earth, covered in runic symbols start to emerge, and One-Eye trudges towards his destiny…

It is not hard to sum up this film in one paragraph as I’ve just done, as that is literally it; this is a film that is very light on traditional plot. In fact, it is painstakingly slow, giving you the impression that it is stretching 15 minutes worth of events into a feature film. It is also unbelievably unusual, if that wasn’t already obvious. Overall, this is one difficult film to even watch, let alone comprehend.

There is a lot to respect in Valhalla Rising, and I think ‘respect’ may be the key word here. It is not necessarily a good film, and it certainly isn’t enjoyable in a typical sense. What it does do however, is seem like exactly the film Nicholas Winding Refn wanted to make. It takes incredible license with convention, and meanders along unhurriedly with little concern for pacing.

Then there’s the content. If we try and pick it apart there are strong allegorical and mythological elements. But nothing is pointed to explicitly in the slightest. Does ‘One-Eye’ really represent the god Oðin? The Christian Vikings seem to represent a new order that would historically replace the Nords’ paganism, but the film’s message seems muddled here, as these crusaders end up being engulfed by forces of nature. Who are the captors we see at the beginning of the film, and why is ‘One-Eye’ castigated by them?

Endless, endless questions that we will never get an answer to. And that’s fine; art doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But the symbolism in the film is just so obtuse, that I don’t even feel like I can offer a tenuous, highly-subjective interpretation of the plot.

And this is what makes Valhalla Rising a special film. It is immune to being pinned down and understood and this will inevitably frustrate many viewers. So here is my advice; just enjoy this film as a sensory experience. It has an incredible ambient soundtrack, it is astonishingly beautiful, and if you persist it will make you slow down to its languid pace.

This must certainly be Nicholas Winding Refn as his most abstract, so now I feel ready for Only God Forgives