Can the Bad Fight Well?: Only God Forgives
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.
Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.
Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.
Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.
Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.
As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.
Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.
But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.
What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.
Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.
What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.
While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.
(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)
Criminal Minds: NBC’s Hannibal
NBC’s Hannibal is not your average mystery show or procedural. It’s not even your average television show. It is cinematic in the best ways possible, aesthetically, narratively, and its primary characters are novelistic in how well they are written. What sets Hannibal apart from shows like Law & Order, CSI:, and NCIS is not necessarily its high production value, but how it’s never about the killer and always about the killer in any given episode. The show is as much as representation and visual metaphor for who Dr. Hannibal Lecter is as a character as anything: it plays mind games with you. And it may be the best show that NBC has aired in years.
Developed by Pushing Daisies helmer Bryan Fuller (which is, for the record, one of my favorite shows of all time), Hannibal works as a partial prequel to Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. Though inherent to the television format, the show is episodic; it still sprawls like a good book, or even better, a great film. But, the characters and stories in this show are not married to either Harris’ source material or to Michael Mann’s film adaptation Manhunter, or even to Jonathan Demme’s seminal thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Sort of like the rebirth of a comic book hero or a character of a big budget franchise being rebooted: this is a new and fresh interpretation that at once utilizes its source material for inspiration yet diverges from it to give the story, and the characters that inhabit it, new life. So, Fuller smartly uses things only mentioned in passing in Red Dragon as some of the focal points for each episode, such as some of the killers his good guy, Will Graham, must track down. Yet he changes the sexes of some of the characters, making tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds and psychiatry professor Dr. Bloom women. Does this change matter? Yes and no. Yes in that these characters are well written, insightful, intelligent, etc. No, in that the change does not inherently affect how good the characters are. Every divergence that Fuller makes, however, enhances the story. It makes one wonder, however, that since the series is working in chronological order, prior to the events of Red Dragon mind you, if it should actually follow the story to a point where the show will become a serial adaptation of the novel.
The most striking thing about the show, though, at least what immediately springs to mind is how it looks. It might be the best looking show on television, at least on one of the major networks. The cinematography is atypical for a television series, even a good television series. Its precise use of colors, texture, slow motion, etc. is more reminiscent of two things: a show you would find on pay cable, like HBO or Showtime, or of a very specific kind of genre show (but a good one), like the teen-noir Veronica Mars. In some ways, the visual aesthetic of Hannibal is marriage of the mind of both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter: sinister but exact in its filming, as Will would have it, and artfully, psychologically executed as only Lecter would have it. I say psychologically because so much of what is on screen recalls myths, literature, opera, film, yet connected into the dark interiors of the mind and subtext of such elements. Its visual style could be compared to the gorgeousness of the films of Park Chan-wook: Bergman-esque in its ties to psychology and morality, but painted so expertly on film.
But so much of what makes the show interesting not how gorgeous it is, but how set it is on seeping into your mind long after the episode has ended. Hannibal is, in this way, the perfect representation of its character, Hannibal Lecter. It wants to play the same mind games with you that make Dr. Lecter such an enticing character to begin with. It creeps into the psyches of all of its characters, peering into the nooks and crannies of the mind. Hannibal is less concerned with catching the killer the way a normal procedural show would and more concerned in analyzing and deconstructing what makes that episode’s killer tick. It is also supremely invested in understanding how its two characters, who will, if the chronology continues, begin a cat and mouse game, and how their minds work.
For Will, this is done explicitly. By introducing Hugh Dancy’s character immediately as “on the Autism spectrum” and closer to “Asperger’s”, the audience is given some sort of identifier. But when the cinematography and the scene itself jump into exactly what Will is thinking – that’s when the show gets interesting. Although the weakest aspect of the show is probably its dialogue (which sometimes tries too hard to be either meaningful and/or eerie), the phrase “this is my design” does work strongly within context. Graham is characterized not stereotypically via lack of social cues, a la The Big Bang Theory, but by genuine empathy, which is executed by the “design scenes”. To visualize exactly what is in Will’s mind is an interesting tactic to get the audience to empathize with will. His empathy manifests itself in the recreation of the crime, but not as a third party observer, but as the killer themselves. With the swinging, swooshing of a clock or metronome hand, each of these Design scenes has a particular tempo which they follow. It’s all precisely executed and shown, again, showing exactly how matched Graham and Lecter are together. Dancy portrays Graham with achingly powerful subtlety, never overplaying his hand either in the drama department or in the tortured soul department. Look deep into the character’s past in the novels and Graham is a damaged person, but while this damage is retained for the show, there’s less exposition and not the same back story. Instead, the show is the opportunity to explore Will’s mind.
The character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has been written about and analyzed, certainly, and enough is known about the character where it seems that reinventing him would be fruitless. What else is there to know or care about him? On the contrary, Lecter’s complexities as a sociopath cum psychiatrist offer all the analysis one could ever want. The issue is, anyone playing him who is not Anthony Hopkins, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his portrayal of Lecter in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, will unfairly draw comparison between the new comer and iconic performance. Hopkins went on to play Lecter again in 2001’s Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott) and again in 2002 in the prequel Red Dragon. Gaspard Ulliel will probably never be remembered for playing the brooding ninja in Hannibal Rising (you know, since no one ever remember that film exists), and Brian Cox, though giving a fine performance in Mann’s Manhunter, will be left in the dust behind Hopkins. It is Hopkins’ flamboyancy that has defined the character, a man who is unquestionably the smartest man in the room, even when he isn’t in the room. Always steps ahead of everyone else (except, perhaps, Will Graham prior to Red Dragon), but his persona has always made him the least likely suspect, even if has committed the crime. Who would ever think that someone who has a photographic memory and a penchant for sketching, a fine taste for French cuisine, all the knowledge of art, classical music, and personality disorders anyone could possess – who would ever think that that man was a sociopath, never mind a cannibal and murderer?
It’s the ability to capture the audience’s attention in the most exotic way that makes Lecter so appealing. At some points, even though you know Lecter is probably pure evil manifested as hyper-intelligent, you don’t care. You would love to have a conversation with him. That is how Hopkins portrayed Lecter for three films. Cox’s performance is significant more restrained, almost in a “barely there” quality to those who have been exposed to Hopkins before, but he taunts William Peterson’s Will more overtly and more like a bully than we would have assumed Lecter would, based on Hopkins’ performance. So, who, in this whole wide world, could possibly play Hannibal Lecter and leave us with an impression that does not include the phrase, “well, he’s not as good as Hopkins, but…”? Mads Mikkelsen.
The Cannes Best Actor winner for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is best known for portraying Bond’s first nemesis in the 2006 reboot Casino Royale. His Le Chiffre was the much needed character that could outsmart Bond while leading the secret agent on into thing that Bond knows best. After years of the same formula, Mikkelsen’s confident portrayal was exactly what the series needed, and the perfect foil to Craig’s cocky, born-again Bond. He was also in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising as a nameless one eyed destroyer and in Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding as a man returning to the home he grew up. So, this man has had a rather varied and prestigious career, better known to critics for his strong portrayals in his native Denmark than for anything really American. But Mikkelsen’s versatility and ability to channel all the right characteristics without ever really bringing Hopkins to mind, well, that’s the sign of a great actor.
Mikkelsen, as evidence by Casino Royale, is good at mind games. And since the show is so reliant on playing those kinds of games with its audience, it is thus important that they acquire an actor that can do the same thing. Mikkelsen is thus able to seem sophisticated, intelligent, and completely confident. Rather, he embodies those qualities that Lecter is known for. The winning trait of Mikkelsen’s performance, though, is the fact that he always looks like he’s sizing you up for multiple purposes: competence, intelligence, and how tasty you’ll be when he serves you as the main entrée. Mikkelsen’s ability to get under the audience’s skin is perhaps the strongest quality of the performance, but it is accentuated by the fact that he’s able to perform this without being compared to the way Hopkins did it. Mikkelsen’s brand of psychosis is not Hopkins. He has been able to make Lecter his own. So, while the advantage to his performance is that there’s no comparison to other Lecters, to one issue is that, at times, Le Chiffre comes to mind. That is, primarily, because of the recognizable accent and, sometimes, the fact that both were known for their mind games. But Mikkelsen’s performance is bravura I just almost wrote “Lecter” instead of “Mikkelsen” at the beginning of the sentence. He has truly made the character fresh again and delicious to watch on television.
So much of the show, though, is focused on the minds of Will and Hannibal, so much so that you can sometimes not tell whose mind the show is investigating. Sometimes, it’s both at once. But that’s what makes the show unique: rare are the shows that care less about “solving the mystery” and more about deconstructing the psychosis and the motive. This method of storytelling, where sometimes the killer doesn’t even “matter” in the conventional sense, makes the series far more interesting than it may have played out normally. Instead, it sprawls cinematically, more like a mini-series on HBO than a regular television show (violence and all). Added by the inherent chronology that the show is following and the canon it is rewriting, watching each week is not like watching an episode of a television series; it feels more like seeing another chapter of the story unfold, filled with atmosphere, dramatic irony, and deadpan humor.
Each episode of Hannibal is named after a course in French cuisine. And so, it follows, each episode becomes tastier and more succulent to watch. With standout performances from the cast and incredibly smart writing, Hannibal is one of the most pleasing things on television. But it’s Mikkelsen’s superb performance, its high production values, and mind games that make the show worth a watch. How often does a show taunt you and get leave you stunned long after the show is over? It leaves a taste in your mouth that’s at once piquant and yet unsettling. It’s the most tempting thing on television today.
Please, NBC, pick it up for another season.