Warning: The following article contains major spoilers for the movie Only God Forgives.
When asked about the polarizing nature of Only God Forgives — a film whose grotesque violence, aggressive style, and underplayed characters have split audiences pretty rigidly intro groups of love and hate — Ryan Gosling called his new movie "kind of like a drug," explaining that "you either have a good trip or a bad trip."
Speaking about the film at a press conference on Tuesday, alongside director Nicolas Winding Refn and costars Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Gosling was happy to joke about the trippy essence and disturbing themes of his latest feature and eager to poke fun at filmmaker Refn, with whom he worked on the universally well-received 2011 film Drive. "You're not really sure of the film you're making," Gosling said, remarking on the organic unraveling of the story during the director's stringent process of chronological filming, "and neither is [Refn]."
Born from this organic practice was the eventual fate of Thomas' Crystal; the actress only first learned of the ultimate fate of her vindictive character after arriving in Bangkok for shooting. "The chronological order makes everything much suppler, much softer, much more open, and much more malleable. You can change everything so much. I got to Bangkok and somebody told me I was going to die! 'Oh, okay.'" After a laugh, Thomas continued, "It doesn't mean she doesn't have a satisfactory exit. And then other things happen to her afterwards, which, also, I was totally unprepared for."
Of course, Thomas was referring to Gosling's character sticking his hands into her corpse's dead womb... a machination that came from Gosling himself. "This is the first time we talked about it," Gosling joked, recounting how he came up with the idea. "Nicolas said, 'I think she should die. What do you want to do when you see your dead mother? Do you want to cry? Do you want to laugh?' As kind of a joke, I said, 'Maybe I'll cut her open and put my hands in her womb.' He was like, 'Cool.'" Reflecting on how the notion came to him, Gosling said, "I can't speak for what I was thinking then. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time."
A visceral film that plods along with daunting, heavy scenes and only a few sporadic spots of dialogue, Gosling calls Only God Forgives "more of an experience than it was a story," differentiating the new project from the far more traditional narrative that was Drive. But a few similarities exist between the pictures, namely Refn's propensity to shoot Gosling with a special "favoritism" of sort.
When asked what causes him to shoot Gosling with such a unique auteuristic attention, Refn offered the tongue-in-cheek comment, "That's a very private question," before delving into the friendship he has developed with his two-time star since their meeting several years back. "The process of creating is a very delicate concept. When it clicks — there have been other people that I've worked with that I've enjoyed a lot — but [with Ryan], there's more of a similarity in certain things ... I enjoy his company, we hang out. It's about trust."
Refn capped the speech of admiration with the wry remark, "I've only had one girlfriend, so I don't know what else there is." To which Gosling replied, "There's got to be a better way to say that." So clearly, there's a lot of interesting dynamics going on among this crew.
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We all know someone who, try as he might, just cannot tell a decent story. Oftentimes, the anecdote in question is hardly worth relaying — a simplistic, meaningless memory about bumping into someone from high school on the way to work or finding a five dollar bill at the laundromat. Or, in the case of Only God Forgives, meandering around Thailand on the hunt for one's brother's killer. And while these anticlimatic accounts might be relatively painless if delivered in a quick, effortless manner, this friend opts instead to hone in on every detail, recalling with an excruciating vividness that insists upon your painstaking focus, forcing each and every conceivable facet down your throat with a boorish, exhausting aggression. And also, there's a whole lot of blood.
For 90 minutes (that feel well over two hours), director Nicolas Winding Refn delivers some hybrid of a fluid story and a static idea: after his older brother (Tom Burke), a perverse delinquent, is taken down by a self-righteous police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm), three-legged coyote Julian (Ryan Gosling) sets aside his life, ethics, and free will to heed his saber-toothed mother's (Kristin Scott Thomas) call to arms against the lawman. The story begins and ends there: the characters remain as they are upon introduction, with the only flow of action being Julian's lukewarm pursuit of Chang (Pansringarm) and vice versa.
Without much in operation above or below sea level in the realm of plot, Only God Forgives relies entirely on style, to a vicious fault. The dark aesthetics of Refn's weeping Bangkok and the hellfire melodies that carry forth the scenes are standalone dynamite, but make such an imposition as to deny you any emotional access to the movie or its characters. If you manage to break through, there are still obstacles — Thomas plays her demonic Lady Macbeth up to 11 and then some, the script never allowing for the flavors of mystery or brevity to strengthen her character. Instead, Thomas' Crystal takes every line, action, and motive a few steps too far, shirking any hint of "interesting" in the process.
In contrast, we have Gosling, who does next to nothing as the reactionary guppy swimming through Refn's sea of acid rain. Without much of a character to build, Gosling doesn't have too great an opportunity to let his actions do the talking in Only God Forgives, instead coming across as a moreover hollow audience surrogate, taking in this aesthetically mesmerizing world through Refn's weird lens.
There are enough times in Only God Forgives that color and character promise to keep the film from leveling out as the sort of painful non-story your loudmouthed friend is wont to anchor you down to agony with. Refn's visual style, while often graphically hard to watch and sometimes jarringly obvious, is a sight to behold. But there's never a true delivery, we never feel entirely vindicated by Julian's journey or our own immersion into this unpleasant universe. What is the story for, if not to cart a handful of bleak elements and images into our conscious to mull over? Is that enough to make a complete movie, or do the stylistic parts need to equate to something of substance?
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Philosophical pondering: if your movie stars Ryan Gosling, can it also be considered an art film?
Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) makes a compelling case for "hell yes" in his latest Only God Forgives, a slow-burning exploitation film that sends Gosling to Thailand to stir up trouble. He plays Julian, a boxing ring owner seeking revenge against a corrupt cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who had his brother killed. Pushed by his Cruella de Vil-type mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), Julian strolls through the underbelly of Bangkok to hunt down the cop and kick his ass.
The ass kicking doesn't go smoothly. If you've seen the posters for Only God Forgives, you know Gosling's face ends up quite busted. It got that way from the character's first encounter with the cop, a ferocious fight scene set in an arena of glowing red and yellow. Refn has always embraced brutality and once again puts his leading man through the ringer.
Outside of the sporadically violent moments — where men cut each other in two and gun themselves down in a fashion that would make John Woo smile — Only God Forgives is a hushed meditation on the awful potential of human instinct. Refn floats through the spectrum of color that drowns Bangkok, relying on slow motion and Gosling's good looks to carry the weight of the movie. It's the definition of a "mood piece." Refn wants us to feel the light, feel the atmosphere, feel the piercing glance of Gosling, and feel the pulsation of composer Cliff Martinez's score. Martinez's work is so essential to the film, it feels as if Refn crafted a movie around the Vangelis-esque soundscape. Like in Drive, the soundtrack's character is the best performance in the film.
Depending on your tolerance for gratuitous violence and dreamy meandering, Only God Forgives doesn't offer much in the way of plot or vibrant performances. Gosling — while impressive in his big fight scene — is an observer with only 17 lines (with classics like: "Go."). Thomas is, thankfully, in an entirely different movie, an extravagant character who delivers sultry energy to the somber picture with moments of comedy that sting. The men of Only God Forgives rip each other to shreds scene after scene, but it's Thomas who delivers the strongest punch.
Teasing a narrative is Only God Forgives' biggest fault. We see a few scarce details of who Julian is, what he's gone through, and why he's ended up in Bangkok. Yet these are not important. Prioritized are the mesmerizing affects of locking eyes with a beauty or the dread that builds as an assailant slowly pins a person with sharp objects, one limb at a time. The movie has tunnel vision, and while it occasionally breaks — there's a cheeky recurring gag of the cop singing karaoke — that sense of humor and personality never round out Only God Forgives. Instead, Gosling is given his 17 lines and the camera starts rolling. If there were subtext underneath the silence, the brevity may have worked.
Only God Forgives arrives in the U.S. on July 19.
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When crafting a follow-up to the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time it’s understandable that one might be reticent to mess with a winning formula. But director Todd Phillips and writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong seem to have confused revisiting with recycling: The Hangover Part II so closely mirrors its blockbuster predecessor in every vital aspect that it can scarcely claim the right to call itself a sequel.
The only significant new wrinkle introduced in Part II is its setting: Bangkok Thailand a location that at least theoretically augurs well for a second helping of inspired lunacy. The story structure of the first film has been copied wholesale a game of Mad Libs played with its script. The action is again set around a bachelor party this time in honor of buttoned-down dentist Stu (Ed Helms). Again the boys (Stu Bradley Cooper’s boorish frat boy Phil and Zach Galifianakis’ moronic man-child Alan) awaken the next day in a hideously debauched hotel room with little memory of the previous night’s revelry. And again there is a missing companion: Teddy (Mason Lee son of Ang) the brother-in-law to be. (Poor Justin Bartha is once again relegated to the sidelines popping up now and then to push the plot forward via cell phone.)
The amnesiac/investigative angle of the first Hangover made for a refreshing twist on the contemporary men-behaving-badly comedy. Repeated here its effect is arguably the opposite: Too often the action feels rote and formulaic. Gone is any hint of surprise an aspect so crucial to good comedy and a huge part of the first film’s appeal. Key comic set pieces – a tussle with monks at a Buddhist temple a visit to a transsexual brothel a car chase involving a drug-dealing monkey – reveal themselves to be merely variations of memorable bits from the first film.
Tonally Part II is darker cruder and a bit nastier than its predecessor. Female characters never a priority in the first film are further marginalized in the sequel. (The only woman with significant dialogue a Bangkok prostitute also happens to have a penis. I’ll let you ponder the implications of that one.) The three leads Helms Cooper and Galifianakis still work well together and despite the inferior material enough of their chemistry remains to make the proceedings bearable – and occasionally funny. But their characters feel somehow degraded reduced to coarse caricatures of their former selves. Speaking of caricature Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) the fey faux-gangsta villain of the first film returns in an expanded capacity in the sequel his garbled hip-hop slang more gratuitous – and more grating – than before.
I can’t help but wonder what might have been if a planned cameo by Mel Gibson playing a tattoo artist hadn’t been scrapped reportedly due to objections by Galifianakis. Liam Neeson Gibson’s replacement apparently proved ineffectual in his first go-round and when he wasn't available for re-shoots his scene was eventually shot with Nick Cassavetes in the role. In its existing incarnation the scene is purely functional a chunk of forgettable exposition. The presence of Gibson an actor of not inconsiderable comic talent would have at least added an air of unpredictability something the scene – and indeed the movie – sorely lacks.