Only God Forgives (2013)reunites Ryan Gosling with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. A movie poster like the one above highlights the “edgy” violence that peppers the film. The actual viewing experience might leave its audience feeling beat up. The striking visuals and moments of understated brilliance are weighed down by a slow pace, an anti-hero that may or may not be on Ambien in every scene, and an ending that will most likely leave you befuddled, or at least leave you on your own to decide what the meaning of it all is.
The movie takes place in Thailand, where two expatriate brothers, one of which is Julian, played by Gosling, and the other of which is a pyschotic with an interest in under-aged girls. This combination results in the brother being found with a dead underage prostitute in a hotel room. Rather than arresting him, the police’s Lieutenant Chang, who, according to Wikipedia, acts as “The Angel of Vengeance,” allows the father of the slain girl to do what he wants to Gosling’s brother in the hotel room. But the father takes things too far, and kills the brother. However, Chang does not care about Billy’s death; instead, Chang cuts off the father’s forearm for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute.
Although the film at this point is bathed in both red neon light and blood, we only see the aftermath of each attack. The visuals are gruesome yet beautiful. Bathing the film in red neon light is a bit on the nose, but it fit not only the subject matter but the seediness of the setting. You can feel the tawdriness of the city enveloping the main characters.
Gosling, who owns a Muy Thai boxing club (which we learn later is a front for a drug smuggling operation), soon learns about his brother’s murder, and seeks out the girl’s father. Just as you think this film will become a art-house Death Wish, we find Gosling actually listening to the explanation. I liked that we don’t actually hear that explanation; instead we see the father gesturing and talking, and we see Gosling’s reaction, if you can call it that. Gosling stares straight ahead, stoic and seemingly unmoved. He decides to do nothing to the father.
So as not to confuse Julian with someone of high moral ground, or “the good son,” or even someone who shuns violence, we are shown various things that make us believe that Julian ultimately lacks moral convictions. He is not an anti-hero, he is a non-hero, a weak person who passively accepts things he can change. He is not above seeking out prostitutes himself: he pays a regular named Mai to put on a show for him while he remains at a distance, tied up to a chair. He seems to be almost asleep throughout the movie, with occasional explosions of rage or violence that only sometimes seem to have a reason behind them. He can beat someone up at a club for no reason, drag him across the floor by his teeth. Yet when confronting Lt. Chang, who is ultimately responsible for his brother’s death, he is strangely impotent, and quite easily beaten in hand to hand combat.
Julian’s mother, Crystal, bursts onto the scene, and we get all that we need to know about why Julian and his brother’s mental and emotional problems by the way Crystal treats the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel. This scene is brilliant, but at times the role as written by Refn may have been a bit too much. Crystal is very willing to act where Julian has been passive, and she stirs up the pot by taking vengeance against her son’s killers. This moves the plot and action along, but perhaps too much of an incestuous vibe is played up for my taste. She compares the penis sizes of her sons when at a dinner with Julian, who is pretending that Mai is his girlfriend. She sees right through the ruse, delivering judgment upon Mai and Julian with scorn in a way that only a spiteful mother could. I’m not sure we need the incestuous overtones thrown in.
Regardless, up until this point, the look of the film, the performances, and the script measured up to the expectations I had for the film (I was not a huge fan of Drive, a film for the most part has erased itself from my memory). The way Refn used violence in the film was effective and even though graphic, understated. But there’s a scene where it started to go south a bit for me. Lt. Chang is nearly executed by gunmen in an outdoor restaurant. Chang tracks down the man who hired the gunmen, whose name is Byron, who himself was hired by Crystal to kill Chang. Lt. Chang drive skewers through Byron’s hands, legs, eye, and ear in a drawn out scene that would seem more at home in Reservoir Dogs than in this film. It seemed to want to shock the audience with how realistic it was. It felt very out of place in a film where we often feel like we are in a dream state, or like Julian, seemingly overdosing on Ambien.
Throughout the film, Julian has had visions of Chang, and it seems like we are destined for a great showdown when Chang and Julian finally confront each other in the boxing gym. But expectations and hopes are quickly dashed, as Chang easily defeats Julian in hand to hand combat, in the same way that a human swats away a fly. I thought the way this scene was handled was interesting and different, but it contributes to the unraveling of the film. I’m not sure what it really was supposed to mean or signify. Julian clearly is not a hero or a villain or even much of a presence or force in the film. That is clear. What isn’t clear is why this story was told in the first place. I don’t feel I was ever given a reason to care why Julian was such a non-entity. Perhaps if Chang had more of a personality himself, that might have provided some insight. But although a force to be reckoned, dealing out punishment to all those who come his way, Chang is too reserved and mysterious himself to be an effective counterpart to Julian. (Crystal is the most understandable and interesting character in the film, but the film isn’t really about her, except for the fact that that in a sense she created Julian’s personality by being such a forceful personality herself).
Although there are a great many things worthy to praise in this film, there wasn’t enough insight into Julian or Chang to feel one way or another about how it ended. It really didn’t end in a traditional sense either, with another vision of Julian’s ending the film. Chang sings karaoke in a bar in front of other policemen as the credits roll. Although it seems unclear, I took this to mean he is the last man left standing, even though Julian’s last vision breaks from reality and the gritty setting of urban Thailand and ends in a field surrounded by trees.
Refn is extremely talented in an unconventional way. But he still has a long way to go before he can get me to care about what happens in his films as much as I can enjoy the technical skills on display. He knows how to write in a restrained way, by showing rather than telling. But he needs to show a bit more, give his characters some emotional weight, for his films to feel like they are more artsy exercises in pretentiousness.
Let me just cut straight to my opinion of this film: I hated it. I will make it my mission to see it destroyed, and all its critical acclaim go the way of The Birth of a Nation‘s.
The Act of Killing (2012)is the fifth and final entry of my reviews of the 2013 Oscar Nominated Documentaries. Given all the rapturous acclaim for this film, I was expecting it to contend for my top pick up to this point: The Square. The premise seemed insane and unbelievable, or as one IMDB reviewer put it, “it needs to be seen to be believed.” True, but that doesn’t make this a good film. The idea of allowing mass-murderers to re-enact their crimes seemed too surreal and interesting to fail, yet it does. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are producers for this film, and if either of them had tackled this subject matter, then it could have been the film I imagined it would be, or the film that critics think they saw. But Joshua Oppenheimer is a hack, offering the viewer nothing but indulgence and wallowing in other people’s depravity, and making us feel complicit in their crime. If that’s how the viewer should feel in watching this, then of course you have to question how Oppenheimer can sincerely believe “There’s no good guys, there’s no bad guys, there’s just people.” 
Oppenheimer must not have even watched his own film, and must be blinded by his “contact with Anwar (the centerpiece of the film and one of the murderers), with whom he’s grown close”  Either that or he’s a hipster, trying to maintain an ironic distance from the horrific implications of his film.
I unfortunately have to review this film, develop an opinion of it, and decipher the filmmaker’s intentions by seeking sources outside the film, because we are given virtually no context for what we see in the film. The film begins with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. We then see what seems to be a structure for an abandoned amusement park that is in the shape of a giant fish. Cut to a waterfall where Anwar, the “conscience” of the film, and Herman, the grotesque pig of a man that is dressed in garish drag, are motioning as if they are sirens luring ships to the shore. They are surrounded by ornately costumed dancers. But there is no music, just a director shouting directions. We will come back to this scene towards the end of the film, but when the director shouts “Cut” you see the young dancers stretching to get their coats- they are uncomfortable and cold. The fantasy quickly gives way to reality. We then are given the only historical context to the film: “In 1965, the Indonesian Government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million ‘communists’ were murdered. The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power, and persecuted their opponents- ever since.” The film then goes on to give their film its current context, which is where they claim to do things that the film won’t end up doing: “When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished. The film follows that process, and documents its consequences.”
Not really, Oppenheimer. If you were to truly have documented the consequences of their actions, you would have at least partially stuck with your original intentions for the film, as chronicled in The Australian: “When the filmmaker tried to explore the truth about what happened in 1965 through the experiences of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, he found: ‘They were too scared to say what had happened to them because the killers were living all around them.’ Police threatened the filmmakers with arrest, while plantation bosses and civic leaders regularly found ways to interrupt shooting. Eventually, the survivors asked Oppenheimer: ‘Why don’t you film the killers?’ Suddenly, ‘all the doors flew open.’ Whereas his original subjects had feared reprisals, the men who’d helped bathe Indonesia in blood were eager to talk about their achievements.”
And we are treated to their boasting for 2 hours, while the victims and their suffering become an abstraction, and even a source of amusement. Herman, the fat pig of a paramilitary leader, enlists locals to help recreate scenes of terror and kidnapping in the streets. It’s a spectacle to everyone involved, with laughter and joy taken in the recreating of their own country men’s misery. “They burned our house down!” Herman says, mocking and mimicking the families of victims, while people in the street laugh and laugh. They calmly recount how they strangled “communists” using wire. Anwar tap dances on the same roof where he supposedly killed thousands. We meet a newspaperman, who occupied the same building that they killed people in, who claims to be ignorant of what was happening under their shared roof. The Pancasila paramilitary group to which they belonged still thrives, and essentially rules the streets. We see their rallies, which seem stuck in a time warp, as they rail against communists, and claim that the origin of the word “gangster” is “free man” over and over again. In case you thought they were just violent, we are treated to their leader playing golf and making disgusting comments about the female caddie’s genitalia. So we learn they are sexist too. Anwar, Herman, and others begin recreating interrogation scenes quite convincingly, but in a very movie-like exaggerated manner.
Given very little context for what is happening, things become very confusing at times. When we are introduced to Anwar’s neighbor, who tells a story of how his relatives were killed, I didn’t know if that was part of the movie they were making or not. Some of the recreations have a nightmarish quality to them, that frankly felt like what a self-indulgent director would do given an unlimited budget. But we never get a sense of how the film they think they are making comes together, or how the “scenes” relate to the historical context we are not given.
We eventually also learn that the killings may have been a cover for the genocide of the Chinese population of Indonesia. When Herman runs for office, we learn that the populace can be bribed for their vote, and he who bribes the best will win the election. Herman loses, and we lose respect for the general populace of Indonesia for seemingly accepting and participating in the corruption that they are essentially victims of. We get to see the members of the paramilitary shake down business owners for protection money, so some sympathy may remain.
Everything I mentioned up to this point happens in the first half of the film. At the hour and 15 minute mark, we got antsy, wondering how much longer this indulgence in depravity could last. I have to admit that I stopped watching at that point, and watched the last 45 minutes just today, a week or so later. Despite several scenes highlighting the natural beauty of Indonesia, the whole country seems like a place to never visit. Oppenheimer treats the viewer to repeatedly observing the actions of people who are the opposite of self-aware at best, and the worst of humanity at worst, without challenging them in any way, shape, or form. I can imagine Herzog taking the same material, and giving it shape and form, and purpose. I can imagine the director of The Devil Came on Horseback or even The Square allowing these people to have their say, but placing their actions in the context of the misery and strife they create. With The Devil Came on Horseback, it was clear what the benefit of the film was. No one would have heard about the suffering in Darfur without it.
And to those who might say that I missed the point of this film, I would point them to Errol Morris’ own The Fog of War, which essentially is a long sustained interview with a “villain” who may have also been to some a mass murderer. The implications, context, and consequences of one man’s actions are clear, even if what we do about it is not. But we inherently as Americans should have wrestled with what we saw because we understood its context and significance. And for what it’s worth, we see a man genuinely wrestle with his conscience, in an understated but genuine way, quite the opposite of the showiness of Anwar’s coming to terms with his actions. So then what is the point of this film? What was the point of going on for 2 hours, letting these people take joy in recreating their own murderous crimes? What are we supposed to learn? What are we supposed to do?
I must quote the following from Jennifer Merin, who quotes her colleague, who also sums up my feelings about the film: “During a post-screening conversation I had with BBC Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser, he commented. ‘It’s as though a documentary filmmaker went down to Argentina, found some ex-Nazis and gave them some money to make a film about how much fun they’d had killing Jews during the Holocaust. Everyone would be horrified. But in this case, it’s about Indonesia. People don’t know as much about it, so they don’t take exception in the same way.’ Insightful and pithy, as always, Fraser’s take on the film and the general response to it just about sums up my own” (2).
But Oppenheimer has the nerve to say the message of his film is “there’s just people.” No, there are people who murder and get away with it, and boast and revel in it. But allowing them to revel in it, without ever really questioning them during the whole process, should leave Oppenheimer with a dirty feeling. Sorry, Oppenheimer, Anwar does not truly come to terms with his actions. A few minutes of hacking up phlegm, or wretching, or whatever he does, does not even begin to count as contrition. If Hitler had come to terms with his actions by getting a little sick, would that mean anything to anyone?
Even better than that, put Hitler in place of Anwar in the penultimate scene of the film. Remember the waterfall fantasy scene at the beginning of the movie? We return to that scene, this time to the tune of “Born Free” (there they go again with the whole “free man” thing) where Anwar is a god like figure, Herman is a grotesque drag queen, and beautiful dancers surround them. Insert two downtrodden dirty people who have wire around their neck, which should immediately for the viewer place these as two of Anwar’s victims. They remove the wire from their neck, and thank Anwar for “sending them to heaven.”
Grotesque. Indulgent. Complicit. Depraved.
Anyone watching this film should read the following, which calls into question the veracity of the claims of the participants in this film:
So that leaves us with the Oscar Documentary Challenge, that I should have finished a month ago. The good news is that 20 Feet From Stardom is now on streaming! So you can decide for yourself on how to rank all five documentaries nominated by the Academy. For me, the order from best to worst would be:
1. The Square
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
3. Dirty Wars
4. Cutie and the Boxer
5. The Act of Killing
Methinks that Blackfish could have been a nomination. I will have to watch that soon.
Red Lights (2012)is a film by Rodrigo Cortés, one of the many Spanish directors on Netflix streaming who seem vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite place what they’ve done. Well, Cortés might be known for directing the Ryan Reynolds pic Buried (which once upon a time was on Netflix streaming), but in the Netflix universe he wrote the just OK Apartment 143, which at some point Netflix seemed to be begging us to watch every time we logged on.
This is a Spanish production, shot mostly in Barcelona, with some shots in Toronto. It grossed over $4 million theatrically in Spain, and in the USA it managed to make….$52,644, or less than what many Americans make in a year. So this would make this pretty much a straight to video title, which begs the question, “Why is it straight to video?” or really, “What’s wrong with this movie?” The movie received mostly negative reviews, and many online reviewers don’t like it, but only knowing it from showing up on Netflix, I came to it with an open mind.
The tension between having an open mind and maintaining a healthy skepticism based in science drives the conflict in Red Lights. The beginning reminded me of such films as The Conjuring, with Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Matheson and the criminally underused Cillian Murphy as her assistant in research. They visit a home where there seems to be paranormal activity, which they quickly dismiss. Like The Conjuring, Weaver and Murphy investigate any phenomena reported to them. Unlike the couple in that movie, however, their research leads them to debunk so-called psychics, and expose them as frauds, when necessary. This is hardly groundbreaking material however, as I’m sure you could think of a couple of films without much effort that follow a similar format.
But even before the appearance of Robert DeNiro as a world-renowned psychic coming out of a long retirement to prove himself, there was something odd about this movie and the feeling it induced. I’m not sure whether this was a sign that indeed the movie was of the quality deserving such a limited release, or if there was something intentional about how the editing and timing of the opening scenes created an almost rushed atmosphere. There were some good lines throughout the movie, when most movies of this type seem content on cheap scares and expository dialogue. There is some of that to be sure, but the decent script, and the solid performances by Murphy and Weaver combine for a better than expected viewing experience. DeNiro isn’t as bad as he has been of late, while Toby Jones and Elizabeth Olson are fine, but the movie almost didn’t need them.
DeNiro’s psychic seems to be the real deal, and although we see the typical “struggle to still not believe” scenes from Weaver and Murphy, we actually bought into those scenes because all the characters felt like real people, or as much as they can in a film that isn’t a character study. We at least know them as well as we know Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, and at least no one has been telling me how great Weaver was in this film for the last three months.
But much to my delight, Red Lights is actually Murphy’s movie, and to say much else would be to act as a spoiler. Like many other films that depend so heavily on their ending, whether you like the film or not depends on whether or not you think the film earned the ending it put in place (or on how well you understand it). While we did have some questions about it, we were able to quickly look at a key scene, thanks to Netflix streaming’s excellent rewinding feature where you can see each frame. Doing so also revealed the possibility that we have to re-examine Dr. Matheson’s (Weaver’s) motives and nature as well. Whether or not you like the ending, or buy it, I can say that I don’t think it’s been done before in a movie of this type. I personally liked it, and made what otherwise might have been just a decent but cookie cutter film more memorable. Not a great film, but pretty damn good. All the haters should just relax and realize that this film didn’t cost them anything.
My Netflix rating: 4 out of 5 (3.5 if it were available)