Only God forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

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Only God forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2013).

Score: thoroughly uninteresting, unless you look at it from a very particular point of view.

Winding Refn is style over substance, always. That’s just what he does. Only God forgives could very well be a collection of neon-lit shots of Bangkok’s underbelly, and nothing more. And it would be a gorgeous collection indeed. The long, panning shots in overly saturated colours, everything bathed in a neon glow, renders the scenes unnatural and seedy. After all, neon is for cyberpunk megalopoli and brothels.

But a movie is not an art book: it must tell a story. Only God forgives follows drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sons, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). After Billy gets killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute, mother and younger brother try to avenge him and fall into the hands of vigilante corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). There’s not what you could call suspense or action, really. The movie not so much paces as slithers through ninety minutes that feel like two hundred. Two smartass Americans get their asses handed to them by a middle-aged Asian cop and that’s more or less the end of it.

Nevertheless, there is something that sets this movie apart from Drive or The neon demon: it is heavily laden with Freudian symbolism, which makes it not only the most aesthetically beautiful of the three, but also the one with the most hidden substance. Britt Hayes wrote a superb piece on it that made me appreciate a little more a movie that had me yawning for an hour and a half.

***SPOILERS***

The relationship between Julian and Crystal had me miffed. Their body language was that of lovers, not mother and son. The way she taunts him about his and his brother’s penis size and her story about Julian killing his father with his bare hands. I didn’t buy the story because, as short-tempered as Julian is, I don’t think he has it in him, but who sleeps with his mother and kills his father? Oedipus, that’s who. Hayes also brings attention to how Freud considers eye and hand trauma as akin to castration, which gives sense to all those endless shots of Julian’s hands and his final submission to Chang.

Anyway, if they had cast someone more expressive than Ryan Gosling, the inner conflict of the character could have been more intelligible, but I guess we’ll never know. What we do know is that the “TAKE IT OFF!!!” scene could have been acted much better on his part.

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