Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Only God Forgives
In 1956, Frank Sinatra released an instrumental album of twelve pieces he called "tone poems of color," and that's what "Only God Forgives," the newest collaboration between "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling is, a tone poem of the color red.
It's there from the first shot, of the vast wall of an underground Bangkok boxing club, with a large dragon stenciled in black. Gosling's Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) own the club, which is just a front for their drug-trafficking operation. (In a late scene, it's clear Julian hasn't picked up much watching bouts.) Billy's a pedophile who tells the owner of an escort service, "I want to fuck a 14-year-old girl. Can't you call one of your daughters?" After breaking into the escorts' private room, Billy rapes and kills the youngest of them.
At this point, Refn introduces the defining character of his film: Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a street cop-cum-avenging angel who arranges for the father of the slain escort to kill Billy - gruesomely (all the deaths are gruesome) - and then kills the father for failing to raise his girls properly. (In his spare time, he sings karaoke before rapt audiences of police colleagues and haunts the dreams of evildoers.) The death of her eldest son brings Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, drenched in peroxide) into town. It's quite an entrance. "I've just traveled 10,000 miles to attend the funeral of my firstborn child," she tells the hotel manager, "and this bitch says I can't have my room." KST has spent the past few years honing her comic chops in such misfires as "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" and the instant camp classic "Love Crime." Here, she's finally found a worthy part.
Crystal's not exactly from the June Cleaver school of mothering. Upon arrival, she bitches out Julian for not killing Chang: "You're obviously too weak. I'll have to do it myself." "Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl," Julian protests. "I'm sure he had his reasons," Crystal replies. "Now, get over here," pointing down like a man to his dick, "and give your mother a hug." As he does, Crystal takes the opportunity to cop a few good feels of his ass and his package (who can blame her? Gosling's so sexy here your mouth may water). When Julian brings Mai, a favored escort, to dinner with Mom, posing her as his girlfriend, Crystal asks her about her line of work. "I'm an entertainer," Mai answers. "Oh? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum dumpster of yours?" This is all before Crystal explains to Mai that Julian could never compete with Billy because, while Julian's very well hung, Billy was "enormous." It's one of the few indelible scenes of the movie year.
"Only God Forgives" doesn't attain the lofty heights of "Drive," and doesn't aspire to them. It's a film of style, a study of neon and red that makes Bangkok feel as foreign and fearsome as an undiscovered planet. Rex Reed has famously called it "unquestionably one of the five worst films of all time," but there's a world of difference between its brutality and amorality and the geek-show nihilism of this year's "Pieta." For one thing, it's beautiful to look at (and to listen to, with a must-own soundtrack by Cliff Martinez). It takes a special movie to keep me from nodding off in the late show. Watching "Only God Forgives" nigh to midnight, I couldn't have been wider awake.