Only God Forgives
2011 was the year that finally saw Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, after many years of operating on the fringes, achieve something approaching mainstream recognition with his violent, distinctive thriller Drive. Now, two years later, comes his follow-up, but the buildup around it has been much less spirited, with a simultaneous release on VOD along with a much smaller theatrical spread. It doesn’t take long into the film to understand why it has come and gone with considerably less publicity and interest. At under 90 minutes, the film is incredibly stripped down, becoming almost an elemental experience, not so much about narrative or significant character development and more about the creation of a nightmarish world of symbolic violence and sexual dream imagery. Refn dedicates the film at the end to famed cinema surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the precise compositions owe more of a debt to Stanley Kubrick, while the neon-lit nighttime Bangkok underworld setting recalls Gaspar Noé’s dark vision of Tokyo in Enter The Void. That Only God Forgives works as a visual and visceral experience is never a question; it’s tougher to pin down exactly what purpose all the style and shock is serving.
After treading close to accessibility with Drive, it almost seems like Refn felt the need to retreat back into the darker, more abstract regions of his earlier work. The film shares many of the same characteristics at that 2011 film: a revenge-driven narrative, a foreboding electronic score from Cliff Martinez, a performance from Ryan Gosling that is built on silent stoicism and brief outbursts of violent emotion. But the devil is in the details, with the frequent acts of revenge distilled down to an endless back-and-forth of pure nastiness without any sense of catharsis, and the main character a low-level thug dominated by Oedipal issues, a loser who operates almost exclusively by the whims of his dominating mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, really letting loose). Refn’s script and direction delight in challenging expectations, the best example coming when Gosling’s “Wanna fight?” challenge to the dangerous, enigmatic killer Chang, a line emphasized in the film’s trailers, is immediately followed by his character receiving a severe, completely one-sided beatdown. The thematic material in the film isn’t exactly new territory for Refn, but the results have never been as extreme, not a small feat considering the director’s resume also includes the likes of Valhalla Rising and Bronson. That makes it a tough film to rate with any degree of confidence; I found it strangely fascinating, both in spite of and because of its consistently off-putting nature, but I can’t say for certain that it’s a success. 6/10.
“My name’s Paul Raymond. Welcome to my world of erotica.” That introduction, dryly spoken directly to the camera by Steve Coogan, sets the stage for a comedic, risqué look at one of the most successful adult entertainment entrepreneurs of all time, a man who was once dubbed the “King of Soho.” And to a certain extent that is the kind of film that follows, although it becomes something of a strange fit when you eventually realize that the trajectory of Raymond’s life is more tragic in nature. The film has a tough time deciding what it wants to be, and so it tries to have it both ways, switching between jaunty business escapades and dramatic episodes showcasing his loving but unconventional relationship with his daughter and her battles with drug addiction. That relationship is where the true heart of the film lies, yet it gets oddly shortchanged in favor of the more eye-popping business side of his life (in this way, the film follows the same path as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, with ’70s prosperity and respectability morphing into ’80s degradation and excess). You get the feeling that there is a more challenging and truthful film lurking somewhere offscreen, but it’s a possibility that goes unrealized in favor of less substantial material.
That’s not a normal criticism for a director like Michael Winterbottom, who has made a career of never really settling for ordinary. Oftentimes this has resulted in less than satisfying work, but even with a film like 9 Songs, you could at least give him credit for experimenting with something different. Even a more “conventional” offering like The Trip still has its own quality that you don’t find much of anywhere else. The most surprising takeaway then after watching The Look Of Love is how incredibly banal it is. Once you get past the abundance of nudity, it’s about as standard-order of a biopic as you can get. This is the point where I could fall back on more standard review elements (Coogan is always worth watching, the mainly-female supporting cast all handle their tricky roles well, the period production values are top-notch), but I think all that really needs to be said is that it’s a film that manages to keep up enough interest while it’s playing but one that leaves the memory almost as soon as it’s over. 5/10.
Guillermo del Toro has never struck me as the kind of filmmaker best suited to blockbusters. Despite occasionally dabbling in larger spectacles, his best films have always been the smaller ones, where he can really let his imagination run wild. While I doubt Pacific Rim will ever be viewed as fondly as films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, it’s a more assured piece of work than his past forays into the mainstream. His goal here isn’t to offer social commentary a la the original Godzilla, although there are brief discussions about environmental pollution and the dismantling of the Jaeger defense program by politicians. Instead, he’s more interested in creating the most compelling world he can on which to stage epic action, and on this level the film is absolutely successful, the post-apocalyptic landscape providing a fresh spin on what would otherwise be a more ordinary narrative. Nothing in the film can be described as all that complex or deep, but that’s part of its charm. The material is taken seriously enough by everyone, but not so much that it gets too weighed down by portentousness. The action scenes are exciting, partly because there is plenty of time to breathe between them and partly because del Toro never drags them out to the point of exhaustion. While the characterization isn’t the film’s strong suit, it gets the job done, and only the comic relief stands out in the wrong way. Charlie Day is fine as one half of a bumbling scientist duo, but Burn Gorman as the other half plays his role too broad and calculated, a caricature among a cast that is playing everything mostly straight.
Going into the film, I was slightly worried that the budget and the subject matter wouldn’t mesh well with del Toro’s unique way with visuals and cheeky sense of humor, but I needn’t have been concerned. There isn’t much that can prevent del Toro from making a film completely his own. A good example of this comes in the middle of the Hong Kong battle that serves as the film’s centerpiece, when the Jaeger and Kaiju go crashing into a building, their momentum slowing down just enough to set off a Newton’s cradle on an office desk, before getting back to business. It’s a nice little moment, a reminder that del Toro isn’t too overwhelmed by his gargantuan creations to forget that this kind of thing is supposed to be fun. And “fun” might be the most apt way to characterize Pacific Rim. Blockbuster entertainment has started to get a little too heavy for its own good, and it’s nice to see one come along that, while not without shortcomings, manages to bring some lightness back to the summer spectacle. 7/10.