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Cannes 2013. Hollow Cinema: Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives"

Nicolas Winding Refn's highly anticipated follow-up to _Drive_ is a work of tritely over-thought stylization.


The pop pleasure and genre subversion of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was enough to bewitch the majority of its viewers, but beneath its surface sensations were some fundamental filmmaking issues. In his new film, which also stars Ryan Gosling in vapid-stare mode, everything that covered up the bullshit is gone, leaving a hollow core of Refn’s cinema exposed. With minimal dialogue, Refn relies on the strength of his visual prowess and the presence of his actors. However, both of those "qualities" are entirely lacking: Refn has an inability to construct coherent space, and his caricatural figures stare and curse and fight without resonating as anything beyond mannequins (and I don't mean this in an interesting way). Taking place almost entirely in seedy Thai clubs and dark street exteriors, Refn tries to paste an Oedipal allegory onto a Bangkok underworld aesthetic onto an existential mood piece. Gosling's brother is murdered by a Thai police official convinced he is God (Refn himself gives us this insight in the film's press book), his mother, played by a venomous Kirstin Scott Thomas, flies across the world to ensure revenge is had. Only God Forgives is a series of silent echoes, nothing on top of nothing on top of nothing.

Refn's interior tracking shots through hallways are particularly instructive on how effectively using space has less to do with, well, just using it, and more with connecting spaces and imbuing them with concepts, moods and conflict (where's Paul W.S. Anderson when you need him?). Even worse, Refn's arrogant confidence in his ability leads to endless moving camera moments that fail to convey anything. With nearly no dialogue aside from Kristin Scott Thomas' laughable, vulgar exclamations—her character is neither the intimidating source of Oedipal desire nor the comic relief it seems Refn was intending her to be. The film’s trashy setting and even trashier attitude is, I suppose, an attempt at digging into something gritty and dark and exploiting it for effect. Instead, Refn's pretension to transcend this trashiness is an exposing failure. The over-calculated visual ideas (embarrassingly, actors repeatedly walk to the center of the frame, in slow motion no less, and turn their head toward the camera), the dark sense of humour buried beneath the film's layers of self-seriousness, the lack of dynamism either within or between images, all add up to a film that is less than the sum of its already paltry parts.

‘Nothing on top of nothing on top of nothing’
Interesting. I’d say that those of us who had more than one chance to see ‘The Driver’ (1978) with Ryan O’Neal on the big screen will note that these observations of Refn’s style handicaps are nothing new, considering his obvious homages in ‘Drive’. A central issue with many celebrated young filmmaker’s that crowd the lineups on IFC and Sundance Channel is that what they bring to the screen are well worn tropes candied over with technical advances that cover up the skeletal narrative structures. There is a lot of ‘fix-it-in-post’ attitude that hampers the potential for a more personal expression of the story. A looser more daring approach to the actors might engender film’s like Refn’s with more evidence of a human presence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a consumer of Refn’s work —-he’s good, but not great. Until a filmmaker demonstrates valid risk taking and inventiveness they are only as good (though often not) as their nearly forgotten source material on DVD.
Ouch indeed. A capsule review body-slam. I expected more from Notebook (literally, in terms of word count).
tómala barbona
I don’t think word count determines the quality, thoroughness, or depth of a review. This is fine, terse writing that already says so much.
I’ve said elsewhere that I thought the way most reviewers felt about “Only God Forgives” was the way I felt about “Drive”. It’s interesting when you see a bunch of people spitting out that Kool-Aid almost simultaneously.
You’re breaking my heart Adam, you’re breaking my heart.
…and how exactly is it different from Drive?
says the guy who who likes Soderbergh’s recent films…and worse, likes Soderbergh’s camera work…
I thought it was going to take a little longer before people got tired of Gosling’s schtick. Nice to see it happen sooner than later. Restores my faith in the public. A little.
I love Winding Refn and Gosling. Call it a guilty pleasure, I certainly don’t.
I liked Drive despite agreeing with much of the criticism levelled at it. I found Refn’s direction and Gosling’s face both really seductive and came out of the cinema feeling a little guilty. Subsequently, I’ve been intrigued by the idea that the film attempts to explore the impact of cinema on notions of masculinity (I’m sure I read an interview with Gosling where he suggested this) but I fear this latest film looks like an empty follow up; Drive 2 Electric Boogaloo.
Isn’t he actually planning a “Drive” sequel? Anyway, I liked “Drive”. I thought it was well-directed and a great “Los Angeles” film.
I haven’t seen this film yet, but I generally really like Refn. I understand that there are some criticisms of his work, and I only sometimes disagree, but he has a pretty idiosyncratic career and aesthetic that I really enjoy. I liken him to Robert E Howard in that his work is primarily about masculinity and, in exploring that masculinity, we discover new facets to it and become more aware of what we are comfortable with. I think that most filmmakers who explore violence beyond large set-piece action scenes are intentionally or unintentionally challenging the limits of our own social morality; one can make an argument against violence in movies all they want, but the hard fact is that we are the ones watching it, and we are the ones absorbing it. Like I said, i generally enjoy his aesthetic, and I am still looking forward to this movie. Some of his best work is very bleak, a la Pusher, though I am okay with shallow minimalism sometimes, and I will hold my judgement until I actually get to watch this one. Also, I thought Drive was a great film, and probably my favorite of that year, right next to Certified Copy. It was a wonderful pulp drama that I thought played with the theme of the existential hero and had fun with the theme.

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