Monthly Archives: August 2013

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives

Whilst on the train home after seeing Only God Forgives in a cinema miles from where I live (it was the only place still showing it this late in the month), I was at a loss as to how I felt about Refn’s most recent work, that has alienated and angered audiences and critics alike. After much deliberation (was I missing the point? Did I secretly love it? Did I despise it?), I was left dazed and asking the question: is it too much to ask to want a film to make you feel something? The answer to this question led me to my three star rating and to this review.

I felt nothing during this film, the second neon-drenched fairytale from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn starring Ryan Gosling (who appears this time with a name, Julian, but with less personality). I felt no sadness, happiness, fear, confusion, or anger. I simply watched the images slide unhurriedly across the screen. I watched Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas’ icy blue eyes stare out piercingly, and I watched the blood pour from men’s faces and bodies as they were beaten with frying pans and stabbed with hair pins. The story, like with Drive, is a simple one. A brother dies, a mother arrives, and a son takes revenge. However, Refn’s heavy handling of Freudian symbolism, suggesting throughout that Julian has some sort of Oedipus Complex, is meant to turn this postmodern tale of family loyalty and revenge into a stylised parable of sorts. Set in Bangkok, the director, and cinematographer Larry Smith, capture a city asphyxiated by its own thick shadows and vivid lights. Here, in a world where men live by archaic laws and women are only either dolls or monsters, each figure lives off of lurid, artificial glares. When we watch Crystal (Julian’s mother, played by a terrifyingly manic Thomas) walk out onto a balcony and into the smoggy light of morning, she looks grey. It’s when we see her in the evening, sat at a table or on a bed bathed in blue, green or red that her kohl-lined eyes become impossible to look away from. Like the eyes of the dragon in the poster, there is something at once beautiful and sickeningly overpowering about them. And yet this striking aesthetic that the film feeds its audience, even when paired with provocative symbolism, wasn’t enough to win me over.

When asked recently about his approach to the film in an interview with The Skinny, Refn was quoted as saying “I needed to destroy everything I’d built in order to recreate everything again.” He wished to “go away and explode” the so-called Drive formula that had gifted him with so much commercial and critical success. I admire his bravery. This is so obviously a film designed to unsettle, to uproot, to perplex. Its choppy editing means that its pace is ultimately disorientating, with already-odd sex scenes interrupted by dream sequences and slow-motion, threatening zooms towards doors at the end of wallpapered hallways (which to me had a distinctly The Shining feel). Violence is coupled with peculiarity, as in one scene an assemblage of Thai girls sit silently, dressed like China-dolls with bows in their hair, whilst a man has his eyes cut in to. The script leaves something to be desired, with Gosling uttering only a paragraph’s worth of lines, and the other memorable dialogue coming only in the form of deliberately stereotypical law-and-punishment talk from Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police officer who takes up the role of Angel of Vengeance, and thereby the Superego (if adhering to Freudian theory as so many reviewers have tended to do). It is easy to see why the film has elicited such violently negative reactions.

However, I have never been one to dislike a movie simply because it is atypical. Sometimes the “slowest” films are the most affecting, and, as proved by David Lynch amongst others, films can be so totally and completely offbeat and still be the definition of brilliance. Refn even demonstrated with his last film that dialogue is not the be-all and end-all of character and story development. So what is it about Only God Forgives that does not quite click into place? Perhaps it is the unoriginal treatment of women: the tiresome “evil mother” figure set against the silent prostitute (played by the brilliant Yayaying Rhatha Phongam who manages to pack more meaning into a single look than anyone else in the film), although if I named that as a personal criticism of mine I would be lying. The men of the film are just as two-dimensional and underdeveloped. Perhaps then it’s the fact that such explicit, very realistic violence is carried out by and inflicted upon such unrealistic, overly-stylised characters. Style is vital in this work, and at the risk of sounding like I’m lumping together two very different Asian countries, the tone of the film and the way it played out was reminiscent to me of Japanese Kabuki Theatre. Julian moves around slowly and deliberately, often randomly positioning his fists in front of him to create what could be compared to a mie. The fight between himself and Chang at the boxing club is like a dance, movements are practiced and slight, to the extent where it seems surprising that Julian could be hurt from it all. And Crystal’s face under the coloured lights of restaurants or bars looks distinctly painted and illusory. Is this why people have found the film so offensive? Is the sudden violence out of place? All I know is that somewhere along the way, perhaps whilst striving for hyper-stylistic perfection, Refn completely cut me off from the film emotionally.

So why three stars and not lower, then, if I didn’t connect to it? Because, despite not feeling emotionally attached to any of the characters, it made me think so intensely about film and its messages. Yes, the Freudian content can wear a little thin. Oh, look, there are some men’s hands being cut off and going inside women’s bodies in subversive manners, because we all know what they represent. However, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that has revived such antiquated theories so boldly and that has presented them so unashamedly. I can’t deny the beauty of the film. Each shot is like a work of art, a snapshot of a claustrophobic underworld populated by demons and dolls. Pansringarm is hauntingly dreamlike as the judge, jury and executioner of the city, and even though his character is basic, the image of his stern face will remain with me for a long time. At various points throughout the film, he takes to the stage of a karaoke bar to sing to his fellow police officers. His songs are tacky, over-synthesised and lyrically stale, and yet the performances are inexplicably engaging. Chang sings them ever so seriously to his audience who stare ever so seriously back at him. Part of me is not sure whether this a reflection of the film itself, as we viewers scramble so seriously to decipher such a bizarre work of cinema, and are left ultimately in stunned silence with nothing but Crystal’s line “I’m sure he had his reasons”.



Badlands (1973)


Holly: At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.

In an environment where boredom reigns supreme and breeds nothing but indifference, a 15 year old girl follows a 25 year old guy across the wastelands of America. It just so happens to be that they kill some people along the way.

Murdering is not important in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s debut from 1973, which I can safely say is as impactful now as it must have been 40 years ago. Instead, the film is a study of detachment in the highest degree; a film that purportedly involves a romance, but that portrays its “lovers” as apathetic. Holly is a young teenager with an overly controlling father, who becomes attached to Kit, an older boy who works a job throwing garbage. The two find each other on Holly’s front lawn as she twists batons, and the rest is history.

Already we have Malick’s signature voice overs, which, despite being beautifully philosophical, prove that conversations aren’t his strong point. Holly begins the film with her own narration, admitting that she is a “little stranger” in her own house, and at the end she wraps up the story with facts. Facts are what moves the film along. They are its essence, and what the characters cling on to in order to make sense of their reality. Holly reveals her intense fascination with them when she admits to herself in plain terms “that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live.” This sudden realisation leads her to reach out for further details, “where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me?”, “what’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like?” Facts are her past (“my Mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My Father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years”), present, and future, for they are all that is available to her in this empty America where ambition has been replaced by monotony.

Kit also draws on facts in reaction to his crimes. When asked by Holly how one of his victims is, he replies “I got him in the stomach”, detailing only the particulars of the gunshot wound. Played by the brilliant Martin Sheen who walks around emulating James Dean, Kit is never plagued by his sins, but instead is severed completely from moral judgement. He and Sissy Spacek display the perfect amount of curious disappointment with life, but accept their situations peacefully and without concern. After realising that their ideal life in the tree house is over, they drive and dance to the sound of Nat King Cole singing “the dream has ended, for true love died”, a fitting adieu before the helicopter scene where Holly decides to stop running.

I watched this with my Mum who saw this in the cinema when it first came out, and afterwards she admitted that it gets better for her with each watch. She said that back in the 1970s the couple’s blase attitude towards their victims had really horrified her, whereas now she can appreciate the film more as an observation of middle America’s lonely inhabitants. It’s strange to think that a film like this could have unsettled someone so much (it didn’t unsettle me, but did slightly confuse me), but I think that it is testament to Malick’s talent that he could depict a murderer and his accomplice so objectively and from such a distance. Rather than provide a moral voice, Malick chooses to focus on images of nature that dampen the horror of the shootings. And he did all of this in his first film, years before this kind of postmodern detachment towards serious violence was commonplace. Ultimately, Badlands is best appreciated once the viewer relaxes and accepts the peculiar and slightly comedic tone of the script. There is no deep psychology at play here, but there is philosophy, the philosophy of life and love in the hands of two characters who have a skewed view of both.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line

To use Private Witt’s own words, each soldier in Terrence Malick’s World War II film The Thin Red Line is “a coal thrown from the fire”. Some men, although weary and isolated, still retain a spark, a remnant of a flame that once burned strong. It smolders within questions about life and death, or glows out of the idealised images of loved ones. Other men are long burned-out, despairing and stone-cold. Their spark has left them long ago, and they either envy or disdain it in others. And yet in battle each man is dirtied the same and faces the same horrors. Whose spark will fade? Can one man ignite hope in another? Where does the light go once it has left the soul?

These are among the questions which Malick most definitely does not answer. And so he shouldn’t. Instead, in this dream-like Hollywood war film with no heroes, the viewer is faced with a strange juxtaposition of violence and nature. Blood is often upstaged by grass. The enemy is swallowed by the scenery. The Japanese on the top of Hill 210 are absorbed by the fields, until it seems the Americans are fighting the hill itself, shot at from nowhere only to fall down to the dirt where other bodies shuffle along aiming bullets at the sky. Cinematographer John Toll captures quiet images of animals, trees and sunlit leaves, that interrupt moments of intense action; bats hanging from branches are unnervingly indifferent to the plight of the soldiers beneath them. At times these shots undermine sentimentality, or are a reminder of the pointlessness of brutality. Other times they seem to suggest the presence and passage of the soul (or the desire to understand it), with light washing poetically over the landscape directly after death, or silhouetted birds soaring to somewhere unknown above a wounded boy. Internal monologues on life, love, fear, and ambition are like the murmurings of ghosts, echoing long after each character is gone. Their angst-filled questions are painfully unanswerable.

What is perhaps most remarkable about The Thin Red Line is its careful reduction of a star-studded cast to an ensemble of suitably minor characters. Nobody takes center stage, and yet nothing feels out of place, not even John Travolta appearing in a single scene as a parodic brigadier general, or George Clooney ordering the soldiers at the end. Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt is as close as the film gets to a “main” character, with his philosophical musings on the afterlife providing a narrative thread for others to follow. Sean Penn as first sergeant Edward Welsh can be seen as the antithesis to Witt’s optimism – the dark stone against the spark – and the two provide interesting discussions on death and the nature of man. Nick Nolte is war incarnate as lieutenant colonel Tall, bloodthirsty and desperate for promotion, and is perhaps the most present in the battle scenes. His screams down the telephone at captain Staros (Elias Koteas) telling him to send his men on what is essentially a suicide mission reveal his inherent selfishness, and yet even he can shed a tear. Every soldier in Malick’s war is full of deep words and deep thought, persistently pondering and meditating when it could be argued that in reality they would be doing little more than wondering what to do and where to go next. But perhaps this is the point. Each man with his particular concern is like a fragment of one soul, the collective soul of every man sent to war. Faith and immortality (Witt), lust and desire (Bell), crippling terror (Fife) fatherhood and brotherly love (Staros), greed and wrath (Tall), numbness and indifference (Welsh, Storm): the audience are made witness to each character’s burden, and are left to ponder the meaning of such suffering.

For a largely philosophical film, there isn’t a lack of tension. The taking of the ridge is quite possibly one of the most intense and heartbreaking war scenes that I have ever come across. The claustrophobic chaos of it all is almost unbearable, as explosions are followed by characters disappearing into the tall grass like toppled scarecrows. Bravery and heroics mean nothing in the carnage, there is only standing in the right place at the right time, or not, as pointed out by John C. Reilly as he stares at injured soldiers with an unfeeling eye. War is death and life played against each other in a game of chance, and it drives men to madness as they search for something above and beyond their reality.

In Malick’s film, words are poetry. They exist apart from (and at times out-live) the body and become something transcendent. When Private Edward P. Train, a relative nobody, closes the film by questioning whether “darkness, light”, “strife and love” are the “workings of one mind”, “the features of the same face”, he is becoming something larger than his character; his speech connects the fragments and concludes on one soul, on “all things shining”. In The Thin Red Line, in this environment filled to the brim with blood and horror, only words have the power to to connect or disconnect, to offer peace in the pandemonium, and they stay hovering in the mind long after the film’s close.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2