Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Cinema File #232: "Only God Forgives" Review

One of the most apoplectic reviews I've ever written was for last years tour de force of boredom The Master, a film with expertly detailed characters full of depth and potential, thrown haphazardly into a plotless narrative that utterly and almost spitefully failed to do anything with them. Only God Forgives has a similar feel, even as it has the exact opposite problem. It's just as slow moving, pretentious, and up its own ass, but it actually has a story that I could see myself enjoying, if only the characters weren't so bland and poorly developed, and their interactions so obfuscated and elusive that I can't possibly engage with any of it. Like The Master, Only God Forgives is less of a movie as it is an endurance test daring you to turn away in disgust, and while I got about 12 minutes into P.T. Anderson's opus before wanting to flee in terror, I got to that point in under 5 this time around. Not sure if that makes it worse, or if it even matters at this point.

Only God Forgives follows a character played by Ryan Gosling whose name I honestly can't even remember, because that's how little I could invest myself emotionally in any of this. He's an American in Bangkok who runs an underground fighting ring as a front for a presumably even more underground drug smuggling ring, who is thrust into the most boring revenge plot in the history of revenge movies after his creepy rapist brother is justifiably murdered by a vigilante cop. And oh dear God is this movie boring, which for a movie centered around crime, murder, and revenge all in exotic locales, is really something you have to work hard to do. I'd make a joke about how only God could forgive a movie this tedious, but I'm pretty sure its so mind numbingly awful that it represents solid proof that there is no God, as no loving God would allow this thing to exist.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say this movie, from the director of the far superior Ryan Gosling film Drive, was a deliberate satire or parody of the worst abuses of independent cinema, particularly those in the post-David Lynch school of atmospheric, symbolic pseudo narratives. People don't have conversations in this movie, so much as they have a series of pregnant pauses in between where you must assume bits of dialogue explaining things would be. We're supposed to just glean that the plot is moving forward from Gosling's blank stares off into the distance, or gain some deep understanding about the murderous cop from the fact that he sings really bad karaoke. Every other scene is set up like a still life painting, and of course the majority of the movie about bad guys doing bad things takes place in a series of endless labyrinthine hallways back lit blood red to resemble Hell, with the justice seeking antagonist dubbed The Angel of Death, because this is the kind of movie that can be both inaccessibly subtle and stupidly obvious at the same time.

Many have decried the violence in the film as going too far, and indeed at many points it does get pretty gruesome, more so than I was expecting, but far from a criticism, this element was the only thing that held my interest. When the movie is so painfully dull and soul crushingly slow, the occasional explosion of bloodshed was just enough to snap me out of the hypnotic trance this movie had me in. Its almost to a fault, as the few scenes that do this are evenly spaced enough that I was unable to completely fall asleep as I so wished to do to escape from watching the scenes without machetes chopping off limbs. One torture scene is particularly hard to watch, but not in a bad way, and a ridiculously one-sided fight between Gosling and the one character I liked is easily the most entertaining part of the movie (entertaining being a relative term) if only because I got to watch a mumbling pretty boy get the snot beat out of him.

Only God Forgives famously received both a standing ovation and a chorus of boos at its screening at Cannes, and I imagine that if I had been in that theater, I might have joined both groups, but probably not at the right times. I would have cheered the bloody mayhem as those around me detested its gratuitous nature, and booed my fool head off at all the still shots I gather most of the film's fans found so captivating. I often try to pinpoint one scene in every movie I watch that serves as a metaphor for the film as a whole, but here there are just far too many to count. Every time we see Gosling's shallow depth as he stares aimlessly at nothing, often backed by some eerily pretty design or location, you have in one image everything you need to know about this movie. And thankfully, more than likely the director will see fit to hold on that image for longer than you would ever need to absorb its meaning, which is that is has none.
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