Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Only God Forgives Re-Review

Director/Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongham, Vithaya Pansringarm, Bryon Gibson, Tom Burke

Synopsis: Julian (Gosling) and his brother (Burke) work in the criminal underground of Bangkok, with Julian dealing drugs to retain power. When his brother is killed he sets out to find the person responsible, pushed to such violent revenge mainly by his mother (Scott Thomas).

Author’s note: Back when Only God Forgives premiered at the Cannes Film Festival me and many others were sitting excited in the packed cinema. The film began, it looked beautiful and for 1 hour and 30 minutes, but it seemed like that was its only interesting facet. The Cannes press argued for the entirety of the festival over the flawless or flawed nature of the film (depending on their siding). I fell into the disagreeable category, disappointed beyond belief at Refn and Gosling’s follow-up to Drive. I spoke to a handful of people who were in two minds about it but one person seemed to indubitably “get it”. I didn’t want to lose face by going back on what I had wrote in my review but after hearing him wax lyrical about the symbolism, characterisation and construction of it I knew I had to give it a second-look. That time has now come with the home entertainment release. And the man who made me change my opinion of the film was Damon Wise who, incidentally, conducts the Q&A on the DVD/Blu-ray. He knows the film as good as its director, making the film a must-buy for film fans – not only to let people give the film another viewing, perhaps changing their opinion of it, but also to hear two men speak fascinatingly at length about the markings of this complex film.

Under plenty of consideration, there’s little to my first review that I now still stand by. Only God Forgives works on various levels, getting under your skin and burrowing into your subconscious.

Much like Fear X and Vahalla Rising, Only God Forgives plays off minimalism and style in order to portray narrative and tone. It may not be a conventional way to watch cinema, but it is an exciting one. At one point during the commentary (henceforth to be referenced to mark the DVD/Blu-ray’s worth) Damon Wise mentions music akin to Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. This comment extends to a conversation on atmosphere and how Refn first saw Vertigo, not completely understanding what was happening. The reference perfectly reflects the experience of watching OGF, a bizarre foray into the vengeance sub-genre. Still, much like Vertigo, there is a dedicated following and critical appeal to be gained from the off-key style.

Perhaps what will hold up most of all for OGF is the cinematography and music. Larry Smith has repeatedly been praised in both positive and negative reviews of the film. It is a truly beguiling series of images that make up the film, always full of depth. As Wise remarks, Smith’s cinematography has an “inky quality... [where] things come out of the shadows, out of the darkness”. It is observations such as these that make the special features on the disc so special. There’s interpretation and discussion to be heard and had from Wise and director Refn’s commentary. If you aren’t wholly caught under the film’s spell, perhaps you’ll grow to change your mind after hearing their thoughts. If, when listening to the supplementary audio track, you find it difficult hearing the dialogue there isn’t much to be missed. For one, the dialogue is sparse (or, subtitled and easily read) and two, you take more notice of Cliff Martinez’s score. With both diegetic sound occurring, and Refn and Wise chatting away, you take note of the score’s power – it radiates, piercing through the other sound, even. As Refn puts it, "Music was in the foreground".

Refn additionally mentions the command of Cliff’s score by noting how the film was “conceived as a silent film" – a nod to all those who complained of the film’s all-too-subtle script. Often classed as a visionary, watching OGF emphasises Refn’s control over visuals. It may not only be sound that penetrates you, but such vibrant colours. The director mentions how the film’s colour was inspired by old Disney movies, a better indicator than any on how important it is. If, by the end, the film has not satisfied you in terms of narrative, it should have via aesthetics.

As a story, it is a tough one to follow. You may be confused by the presence of Vithaya Pansringarm (dubbed “The Angel” by some) or put off by the muted appearance of Ryan Gosling. Gosling has his moments of impacting the odd scene, but he still appears worryingly wooden. Of course, it is part of the film’s set-up, but his performance still feels slightly too restrained. However, if Gosling takes a back seat, so to speak, co-star Kristen Scott Thomas ignites the screen with her fiery mother character. Swearing and swaggering through the Thai landscape, she is an assertive presence in the film. With this mix of actors their respective characters; there is an added anomalous feel to the whole thing – clearly off-putting for some as seen on its initial release.

Definitely a mixed bag for most film-fans yet it should eventually been seen as a sublime piece of art; it is, it seems, something that needs a second glance. It also benefits from the DVD/Blu-ray extras, including a sterling commentary from an absorbing filmmaker and a discerning Damon Wise. Extra pleasure for Gosling fans come in the form of the behind-the-scenes extra that includes one or two Gosling quips.

Film: **** Extras: ***

Also posted on LiveForFilms

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