The following part is without spoilers. There will be spoilers below.
This is a tough movie to review. On one hand, it’s a Nicolas Refn movie. You kind of know what you’re getting when you walk in: lots of beautiful shots, lots of very violent, explicit gore.
On the other hand, it’s not like most previous Refn movies. The one character you’re following isn’t a hero (more on that in the spoilers if you want). He’s not Bronson or The Driver. I know a lot of people wanted to see Drive 2. This is entirely not Drive 2, no matter what the promos suggest.
What you do get is a very, very gorgeous movie that’s at times other worldly. Thailand is a completely different land from most of the world and Refn takes advantage of its bizarre beauty, casual sexual explicitness, and quasi-Wild West nature. It’s stranger in a strange land, but the viewers are the strangers this time.
Its biggest strike, however, and probably the biggest reason why most of the reviews so far are negative, is that the narrative isn’t neat and tidy. It’s very subtle. But once you see it, you see the movie that was supposed to be made.
It starts out other worldly. The scenes don’t seem connected and it looks more like you’re watching a bunch of random shots stitched together to make a movie. They make greater sense by the end. The intention is to make the world seem different and it is.
It starts with Julian (Ryan Gosling) and This Other Guy (that turns out to be his brother Billy (played by Tom Burke)) in a kickboxing gym. They pass some drugs. Billy and Julian then go out for their nightly hooker run. Billy finds his 16-year-old hooker, rapes her and murders her. The police find him, docile on the bed with the body on the floor. This one guy, the apparent ringleader, who we later found out is Chang, brings the girl’s father in. The girl’s father kills him. And that’s where the story starts. Chang cuts off his arm.
There’s some odd bits about premonition, dreaming and anticipation here. Julian goes to find the father to shoot him and finds out that the father was just given the opportunity after Billy had raped and murdered the girl–Chang was really behind it.
To make matters worse, Julian’s demanding, cruel mother flies into town to avenge her son’s death and is deeply disappointed in Julian for not killing the father despite knowing Billy had raped and killed his daughter (her exact response is, “he probably had his reasons”).
From there, the vengeance clouds the plot. One person tries to kill another and it builds and builds to a crescendo. Only it’s not really a crescendo.
And there’s one detail the audience needs to figure out to make sense of the movie.
If you want a hint, Refn hid it in the contrast of white and black in clothing.
Spoilers ahead. There’s more review below, so just skip this part.
The one thing that I think most people miss in this movie is Chang is actually the good guy. He’s, in fact, a lieutenant of the police, as Refn pointed out last night at LA Film Fest. That’s why the police officers are constantly around him–he’s actually their boss. He isn’t a ringleader of any kind. His main goal is the protection of his citizens and he is cruel to be kind a few times.
Refn hides this very effectively with some slight of hand movie tricks–camera angles, music, acting from Vithaya Pansringarm. Pansringarm is actually fantastic in the film. He’s absolutely menacing throughout, more or less emotionless. He’s also a fabulous fighter and uses that short sword of his with authority. If you didn’t know he was the enforcer of law, it’d be easy to construe him as the “bad guy.” In fact, I think that was Refn’s intention.
The easiest way to figure that out is by following Julian. Julian is the weakest link in a crime ring and everyone around him is cruel, unusual, and without morals. Julian seems to have some morals, though. Watch for the colors of his shirts. When he loads the gun and aims it at the father of the murdered 16-year-old, he’s wearing a white shirt. He chooses not to kill him after hearing his story.
Later in an apparent dream sequence, while wearing a black shirt, he chooses to be particularly violent to someone who just so happened to be in the same room as him.
Julian wears a white shirt for most of it, which signals his motives: they’re honorable. Even when he’s wearing his black suit, the shirt is always white.
Likewise, Chang’s undershirt is white and his motives are also honorable. However, he wears the same black outer wear throughout because he’s not a particularly forgiving man and his motives are unclear throughout most of the movie.
Julian’s mom is regularly wearing some kind of black undershirt or bra and is often masking it with a white dress or shirt, particularly in her death. Her motives are always dishonorable, though she puts a much nicer cover on it than deserves.
Chang, it turns out, is “God” from the title. Refn confirmed this last night. He’s the only one who forgives. And he spares the life of three people in the entire movie: the only three people who accept the consequences of what they’ve done. Each of them ask for forgiveness in different ways. The father is regretful, but doesn’t know what to do next. The man who hired the assassins completely accepts the consequences of what’s to befall him, but asks his son to be spared (we don’t know what happens to him after that, but I’m guessing he lost a hand). And Julian, although he doesn’t have a particular fault except for killing a man who was about to kill Chang’s daughter, accepts it and is willing to lose his hand.
Movies that play with the protagonist/hero/antagonist/villain roles tend to suffer. As we’ve seen from Breaking Bad and Mad Men, viewers will go a long way to defend the protagonist, even after he’s murdered people in cold blood. I’m about 90% sure this is why most people didn’t like it. That and the scene where Julian sticks his hand inside his mom. That was weird.
There’s also a part about the movie that’s about impotence and not being a good son. That one’s a little more obvious and I think you can figure it out for yourself. If you’re confused, look for the open hand-feminine/closed hand-masculine moments.
The movie does have a decent plot, it’s just well-hidden. If you spot it, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t, I understand your complaints. If you do and still don’t like it, that’s understandable.
Without that, though, the movie is jarringly gorgeous. Very few shots are wasted and the colors pop. Refn captured the day-glo nights, the rural shack life, the seedy underbelly, the sort of humble indifference of good and bad in the streets of Bangkok just within the visuals. It’s alluring. Watch it on a big, big screen.
Though Gosling is extremely muted–Refn commented he wanted Gosling to act as though he were in a dream for parts of the movie (for a reason)–his portion of the movie is still pretty damn good.
The two people who really steal the show, as they should have and, hopefully, with Refn’s intention, were Chang (Pansringarm) and Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Both are great characters. Crystal is an absolutely cruel woman, willing to embarrass her son to a huge degree in front of his supposed girlfriend. When push comes to shove, she’s weak.
Chang is a fantastically calm man in the face of a strong challenge. He’s comes off as sinister and a bit frightening. His role is absolutely bizarre and amazing and Pansringarm plays it remarkably well.
As a whole, the movie is obtuse and a little weird. It’s supposed to be. Whether or not you like it is a different issue.
This movie will probably be divisive for years to come and I can see it getting a cult treatment eventually, a little less beloved than Drive.
But I loved it.