01 August 2013

13 Ways of Looking at Only God Forgives

It was difficult to to even hear the sounds of Only God Forgives under the din of mainstream critics retreating from their praise of Drive. To make a analogy that is inappropriately Sheenian: the nose wrinkling of the critical consensus resembles a man who's enthusiastically fucked a whore but kicks her out of bed because he's disgusted by her line of work. The distaste has dripped down to an acquaintance of mine who said he'd never thought Drive was that good, to which I replied, "wait, you saw the film twice in theatres!" (It's curious that one of the only entirely positive reviews comes from a guy who saw OGF in Cannes, before the backlash crested.)

To find my thesis I'll tell a story. When I was a lad I liked to make refreshing beverages from concentrate. Like all amateur juiceologists, I eventually had the thought it's delicious with the recommended amount of water but it would taste even better with half as much! And I wound up with something that hurt my teeth (more so). So it is with Nicholas Winding Refn. The color saturation, the ultraviolence, the impotence, the terseness is always there--and in Pusher 2 or Bronson or Drive the mix is critically delicious, but there's not enough water in Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives. Perhaps my biggest criticism of his latest film is that Refn sure condensed out all the hot electronica tracks.

Over on Twitter I've had some fun cataloging how often reviewers have been compelled to point out that Refn is DEFINITELY NOT IN ANY WAY as good as the bulletproof David Lynch (for another post: David Lynch is the John Ashbery of filmmakers?). I'm here to provide further below replacement level comparisons.

1. OGF loses out to Apocalypse Now when it comes to overall atmospherics but has the same nuanced portrayal of southeast Asia--where men are men, women are cum dumpsters and the dogs still have their testicles.

2. OGF isn't as well-decorated as The Shining but the hallways are almost as terrifying, with worse floorcoverings but better wallpaper. And all illumination provided by police lights.

3. OGF can't match James Dean swag in Rebel Without a Cause though our protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) shares with Jimmy a proclivity for white t-shirts and spinelessness. And Julian's father definitely wore the frilly apron in the relationship with his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).

4. OGF is no Irreversible in the blunt head trauma department but even without improperly-deployed fire extinguishers there's still stomach-churning gore, as when Julian's brother meets his end (Tom Burke's "I want to fuck a 14-year-old" Billy is even more repulsive than your average Garret Dillahunt slitherer). Julian responds to the brain-splattered abstraction as you do--by watching a prostitute masturbate.

5. OGF will never be confused with Archer, but when it comes to mother-son affection Julian and Crystal's contentiousness resembles Sterling and Mallory Archer's. Though with fewer jokes and less-admiring references to the size of his penis.

6. OGF lacks the couture appeal of Maggie Cheung's In the Mood for Love dresses but Crystal does her best. She drops her Juicy sweatsuit after arriving in Bangkok and sheaths herself in animal and floral prints (including one number with an unfolding rose just below her waist). Crystal also adapts the heavy eye makeup and bloodred nails of a courtesan to such a dragon lady effect that I can't believe she never blow smoke out of her nose.

7. OGF's meter of justice, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), doesn't rack up a body count as extensive as Anton Chigurh's in No Country for Old Men and does it with less hair and sense of humanity. When it comes to weapons, Anton has the awesome air gun but Chang has a sword that he pulls straight out of his spine.

8. OGF doesn't have an oily Brits as lobster-colored or linguistically alluring as Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast. Crystal's lackey, Byron, possesses less expat charm and meets his maker after an excruciating interval with an unlicensed oculist employing some flower-arranging sticks that should really be subject to a safety recall.

9. OGF is too quiet to make room for any grandstanding speeches and that's a shame, because Kristin Scott Thomas seemed to be in the same delicious mood as was Lena Headley in that Game of Thrones episode when Cersei thinks everyone is gonna get raped and killed. Crystal is the only possible match for Chang in the film and I would have liked to see her win him over with soliloquy.

10. OGF fight scenes just don't kick as much ass those in Rocky III. But the Julian-Chang matchup works out just about as well for the white dude as Rocky-Lang I. Kudos to Refn's makeup people though--they did an excellent job of adding another bend to Julian's nose.

11. OGF's Bangkok isn't as hot as Tom McGuane's Key West in Ninety-Two in the Shade but shares with the book a vertiginous sense of mutually assured destruction. Early in the film I hoped Julian and Chang would have rival Muay Thai clubs that would function like Skelton and Dance's competing skiff boat operations. It wasn't to be but, as in the book, it's the humidity that gets you in the end.

12. OGF's inclusion of Chang isn't quite as audacious as the physical presence of Death in The Seventh Seal, though the retired police officer has his own surprising talent. Instead of a chess ace, Chang's a great karaoke'r with an affectless Tammy Wynette vibe--all voice and no movement.

13. OGF can't work a clothing metaphor as tight as the increasingly filthy scorpion jacket in Drive. I always figured Gosling's Driver didn't want to change his ensemble because he was so beautiful in white plush (just as Tom Hardy's Bronson preferred not to wear clothes since he looked best without them). Gosling's Julian had more reason to change after his face was Picassoed--there's nothing special about his three-piece boxing suit except the red and blue jacket and vest lining.


It's somewhat embarrassing that a film everyone called awful and terrible and indulgent and stupid generated so many fun notes. All I really know is this: if you leave the theater--in any weather--you'll want to put your hands in your pockets after securing a scarf around your neck.