Review: Only God Forgives

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Oscar Wilde once advocated a curious notion: ‘All art is quite useless’. A sentiment which, in many respects, can be applied to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a neon-drenched nightmare which is every bit as ostentatious as it is daring. A film which, paradoxically, is rarely a film, but a glorified PowerPoint presentation of electric aesthetics – a compelling case of style over substance.

Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling), is a US expatriate part of a drug smuggling operation. A disquieting man, Julian is brother to Billy, a violent sociopath who is murdered after killing an underage prostitute. When their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok, she demands Julian to seek the men that killed her son; this is a story of vengeance and deep-seated mother issues, set in the criminal underworld of seedy Thailand.

First and foremost, this is some picturesque cinematography from Larry Smith – each scene drips and crackles with style, with rooms saturated in blood-stained reds and chilling blues. Beneath the thick sheen of incandescence and fluorescence is a vacuous tale, but the plot, or the lack thereof, is redundant; Refn makes for a contemporary Stanley Kubrick, directing and painting a motion picture with tracking shots as harrowing as The Shining, and plenty of the old ultra-violence à la A Clockwork Orange. As Alex DeLarge himself would say: ‘Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh’.

The Gosling name will assuredly lure many into this neon nightmare, but it’s about as much of a Ryan Gosling film as No Country for Old Men is a Josh Brolin film. No, like Javier Bardem‘s minacious character in the Coen brothers classic, this is about Lieutenant Chang: the Angel of Vengeance, divine retribution personified – a supernatural performance from Vithaya Pansringarm.

Brevity is a double-edged sword. The ever-smouldering Gosling remains silently stoic, sulking for most of the film, effectively reprising his role from Drive and exhibiting another cool performance to cement his indie stardom. The depraved dialogue, however, greatly illuminates how underwritten the narrative and characters actually are. Ergo, to many it may seem almost obnoxious, a contrived stylisation which stubbornly refuses to conform to the conventions of other crime-thrillers, or indeed, reality.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and these characters are so very cold. Inhuman almost, like Dorian Gray himself. As a result. It’s not nearly as accessible as the adrenaline-fuelled Drive. The ending, meanwhile, is as abstruse as it is disappointing. Some might say it’s anticlimactic, but the film never quite builds enough impetus to suggest there should be a superior alternative.

Art – as impressionistic as it is subjective – a visual spectacle which inevitably polarizes and divides. As for Only God Forgives: is it pretentious? Certainly. Is it perfection? Certainly not. But only God could deny the fact that this is art. Not high art, necessarily, but art nevertheless.

7/10

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Review: The Place Beyond The Pines

Pining for Gosling? Here’s just the place.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling’s second collaboration with Director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond The Pines is an audacious outing which explores themes of fatalism and fatherhood. This powerful crime drama is a grandiose vision reminiscent of Crash (2004), interweaving stories of love, loss and redemption, supported by outstanding acting performances from two of the hottest leading men in Hollywood.

Gosling and (Bradley) Cooper live two parallel lives. One is Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who descends into a hedonistic life of crime, robbing banks to provide for his son and ex-lover Eva Mendes. The other is an honest cop, Officer Avery Cross, whose moral integrity is compromised as he becomes embroiled in the corruption of the police department.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a melancholy triptych: a tale of three parts. The pines, the place, and the place beyond. The encounter between the characters is tragically brief, but this brief tragedy bears ramifications for the remainder of the film as an inevitable butterfly effect gradually unfurls. The idiosyncratic Gosling, most notably, is sublime.

Cianfrance grabs you by the scruff of your neck, dragging you face-first into Schenectady. Your eyes soon peel back like Alex in A Clockwork Orange; you can‘t look away, and you won’t miss a single feeling or expression. Raw emotions are exposed like frayed wires as the camera lingers upon character’s faces, as if almost waiting longingly for a reaction. Not since Blue Valentine has cinema felt so invasive, so intimate.

Gosling is quickly becoming affiliated with atmospheric music, like the towering Drive soundtrack, and Pines features an equally poignant score by Mike Patton, supplementing the sweeping cinematography and heartfelt emotions perfectly. And from Bruce Springsteen to Bon Iver, this soundtrack is a real feat in its own right.

Contrary to Crash, this isn’t merely a circumstantial window into multiple lives. Instead, it tries to tell so much in so little time that certain roads feel left unexplored. The latter half of the film in particular suffers from misdirection and the ephemeral moments of ennui that accompany, but paying attention pays dividends, and when the plot gets back on track it soon gathers an emotional crescendo culminating in a gripping second climax.

Unlike the protagonist’s chiseled torso and exquisite facial features, this film isn’t a demonstration of perfection. But beyond the narrative flaws, and this reviewer’s questionable sexuality regarding the aforementioned comments about Gosling, lies a compelling story with real depth and gravitas which grapples with issues of morality and illustrates the cyclical nature of life.

 8/10