Friday, June 9, 2017

Roll With the Punches - ONLY GOD FORGIVES

I’m a big proponent of going into a movie with no expectations.  It’s not always possible, of course.  The themes of certain movies are a given.  The latest STAR WARS movie will contain a star at some point, and at least some form of warfare.  Superhero movies will likely not dabble too deeply into the existential nature of life (Ang Lee’s THE HULK aside).  Even with these movies, though, it is important to go in with an open mind.  Building up a very specific level of expectation inevitably leads to disappointment, or worse, rejection of a movie without fully experiencing it on its own merits.  Stay loose, roll with the punches.  Almost all movies work better when viewed with an open mind.  Some movies absolutely demand it.  Trying to make Nicolas Winding Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES conform to any kind of expectation will simply break your brain.

The Capsule:
Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a modest drug trade out of a Bangkok kickboxing ring, along with his repulsive, vile brother, Billy (Tom Burke).  When Billy kills an underaged prostitute, he runs afoul of mystical god cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who facilitates the scumbag’s very deserved death.  Julian is reluctant to claim revenge because he is familiar with his brother, and Jesus, did that fucker deserve to have his head caved in.  That wasn’t a question.  This is a question: Who could have raised such a horrendous piece of shit? We learn the answer when Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas!) arrives from Miami.  Crystal is the worst human being on Earth, even worse than her prostitute murdering son because she made him.  Crystal very much wants revenge and cares nothing about how many people get killed in the process.  So, poor Julian is stuck between an immovable object (Chang) and an intolerable force (his mom).

If Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Dario Argento had an orgy while on acid and watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO on a continuous loop, the resulting child would be this movie.  ONLY GOD FORGIVES is straight up nuts.  Not lowbrow nuts (we have no money or script and the director is just going to wing it), but highbrow nuts (we gave the director too much money/control and we have no idea what the hell is going on).  The basic plot is pretty straightforward, more or less, but the way Refn gets there is anything but.  With all the trippy visuals, deliberate pacing, and ominous music, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is a dream sequence.  Maybe all of it is a dream sequence.  It doesn’t matter.  Don't try to figure it out, just float along with it.

If you can't stomach the story, the visuals alone should be enough to get you by.  It was hard to select screen shots because practically every frame in this movie is a work of art.  Cinematographer Larry Smith worked on Kubrick’s last film, EYES WIDE SHUT, and the influence is instantly apparent.  The Bangkok of this world is filled with an unnatural, vivid, and precise beauty.  Even the ugliness, which this film has in spades, looks gorgeous.  Refn is such an astute visual storyteller that the film could be viewed with no dialogue at all and still make just as much sense (which is to say, not that much).  You would miss all of Kristin Scott Thomas’s jaw-droppingly offensive dialogue, though, so don’t do that.

Refn’s movies have always focused more on antiheroes than traditional good guys (see VALHALA RISING, BRONSON, DRIVE).  ONLY GOD FORGIVES warps the concept of a protagonist even farther.  There are characters so unspeakably horrible that the merely awful ones come out looking pretty good.  

Julian is the most sympathetic, because anyone forced to spend time with Crystal deserves our pity, but it is hard to call him the protagonist since most of the movie revolves around his inaction.  He barely speaks, mostly avoids violence, and is only peripherally involved (and fully clothed) in the movie’s joyless sex scenes.  It’s kind of hard to watch Ryan Gosling playing such a depressingly pathetic loser (as opposed to THE NICE GUYS where he is a lovably pathetic loser).  

Kristen Scott Thomas, who by all accounts is a decent person, deserves an Oscar for her transformation into Julian’s heartless mother.  Seriously, it’s more impressive than the transformation in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.  Crystal is like Tony Soprano, but with less charm and humanity.  Unlike her male counterpart, though, she never even lifts a finger to put the hurt on anyone.  She doesn’t have to. She has perfected the violence of words.  Vulgar, demeaning, and tailored for maximum damage, her words cut deeper than knives.  Even the most hardened gangsters in Bangkok are terrified of her.  One guy endures being impaled by spikes, having his eyes sliced, and his ear drums pierced just to avoid doing something that would get her mad at him.  Sticks and stones may break your bones, but that’s preferable to getting a earful from Crystal.

There is no doubt that Julian’s spiritual and physical impotence is due to his mother.  She has him completely twisted around her finger.  The whole reason he is exiled in Thailand is because he killed his father at her request.  In the very first moment of their reunion in her Bangkok hotel room it becomes clear that Crystal has a very inappropriate relationship with her son.  This is probably the only time seeing someone rub up against Ryan Gosling has come off as gross.  I mean, I haven’t seen LA LA LAND, but I’m willing to bet it doesn’t have as much suggested incest.

Julian and Crystal’s awkward relationship leads to, in my opinion, the most amazing part of the movie.   Julian, in an utterly hopeless attempt to gain his mother’s approval, goes to high class call girl, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), and asks her to accompany him to dinner with his mother and pretend to be his actual, non-paid girlfriend.  Mia looks like she would rather he just shoot her in the face, but feeling sorry for him, she agrees.  So in the middle of this incredibly stylized, hyper-violent crime story, it takes break for a classic sitcom moment.  What follows is like an episode of Growing Pains shot in the Ninth Circle of Hell.  

To start the night on a classy note, Crystal breaks the ice by causally calling Mai a “cum dumpster.”  It manages to get worse from there.  She thanks Mai for her condolences regarding Billy and then proceeds to go on, in detail, about the size of her dead son’s cock.  To be fair, she also admits that Julian’s cock size is pretty decent, just nothing compared to Billy.  Julian spends the dinner looking down at his plate hoping for a sudden aneurysm, but Mai stands her ground with Crystal.  She doesn't speak out, because that would be akin to going onto a pro-Trump forum and announcing “You know, I think you guys didn't give Hilary a fair shot.”  Nothing productive would come of that.  Everything is expressed through Mia's defiant stare, unwavering against even the most offensively scalding comments that Devil Mom can spit out.  Mai is one of only two people in the film who do not wither under Crystal’s verbal venom, and she comes off as being the one truly admirable character. 

The most fascinating and utterly confounding part of the movie is Chang.  Everyone else exists in this gritty hyper-reality, but Chang is straight up otherworldly.  He just appears at the initial crime scene like the Spirit of Justice.  All the other Bangkok cops treat him with  reverence, like he is an absolute authority.  He allows the murdered prostitute’s dad to bash Billy to death, then he cuts off the dad’s arm as penance for pimping out his daughter in the first place.  I know it’s a foreign land and all, but that just does not seem like standard police procedure to me.  Plus, he magically summons his sword from behind his head.  So, yeah, he's hard to pin down.

Other times, though, Chang seems like a somewhat normal person.  He has a nice little house and a loving family.  He enjoys dinner with cop friends.  At one point he shoots someone with a gun, so it’s not all magic sword business.  After moments of extreme violence, he unwinds by singing karaoke to a throng of captivated policemen.  Well, maybe that’s not exactly normal, but he seems to be more man than metaphor.  

Chang is another bit of unexpected casting, because for an unflappable god cop, Vithaya Pansringarm seems more like a socks and sandals granddad.  Looking at him, you would expect him to be the frustrated chief at the police station, pounding his desk and warning the hot shot new guy that he’s gone too far.  Instead, Chang is a total badass, supremely confident and really scary.  When Julian challenges him to a fight in a misguided attempt to protect his mother, Chang absolutely wipes the floor with him.  Julian's skills are impressive, but he doesn’t even land one punch or kick.  The fight is completely legit, no extreme close ups or fast cutting to hide anything.  It is shot nice and wide so you can see the action, and it is choreographed so well that you believe this unassuming retiree could beat the shit out of a professional kickboxer.  Of course, it all goes down in front of Crystal, because Julian clearly hasn’t been embarrassed enough in front of his mother.

It is far from a happy ending [Spoiler] but at least Crystal doesn’t make it out.  Chang finally confronts her at her hotel room, and after trying her hardest to throw her son under the bus, she finds the one thing sharper than her tongue is Chang’s sword.  On the way out, then entire management staff of the hotel gives Chang a huge fruit basket in appreciation.  Okay, they didn’t show that part, but there had to be a few high fives going around.  What we do get to see is Julian discovering the body.  He calmly slices open her stomach and sticks his hand into her uterus.  Hey, we all find closure in our own way.  Who am I to judge?

This kind of film is not for everybody.  That’s true for most of Refn’s films.  They are not movies to go into with preconceptions.  I remember hearing a story about a woman who went to see DRIVE and got so upset that it wasn’t like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS that she tried to sue the studio for false advertising or crushed dreams or something.  I would have paid good money to see her reaction to this movie.  Hopefully someone asked her, “Hey, do you want to go see that new Ryan Gosling kickboxing movie?” and recorded the results.  I should check YouTube.

C Chaka

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