Only God Forgives (3/5):
In 2011 director Nicolas Winding Refn floored me with Drive, a violent and colorful fairytale that’s more romantic than its pulpy roots deserve. Refn’s fusion of neon soaked images and synth based rhythms announced the arrival of a singular talent, one of which now had the freedom to make whatever he wanted. Enter in Only God Forgives, another highly stylized excursion that precariously welds vicious violence to ambitious storytelling. Once again, Ryan Gosling anchors Refn’s picture, playing Julian. a quiet American running a drug ring under the guise of a Muay Thai training facility in Bangkok, Thailand. After his brother is murdered for disgusting behavior, Julian searches for his brother’s killer at the behest of his cold, calloused mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). After some invasive investigating, Julian discovers that his brother’s killer is actually a sword wielding, karaoke loving police officer named Chang ( Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang views himself as a god of sorts, serving judgment and mercy to whomever he pleases. Torn between family obligation and moral decorum, Julian struggles with a plot to eradicate Chang’s existence. But his mother toys with him, manipulating his emotions and making power moves behind his back. Soon, Julian’s destructive hands beckon him to unleash blood in the name of revenge.
Julian’s path is blanketed by hellacious hues and provocative violence, but where Refn’s efforts in Drive transcend gratuitous imagery, Only God Forgives bathes in its excesses, using ambiguity as a crutch for a simple, disengaging story. The characters certainly don’t provide us with an entry point, which is partly due to how detestable they are, but even monstrous characters should at least be frighteningly interesting. Instead , Refn is working with nothing but vanilla characters. The characters are so thinly drawn that even Ryan Gosling appears bored. All he does is brood in an artfully lit strip club, a poorly lit boxing gym, and in visually redundant scenes. Even the film’s scant running time cant hold our attention, as we slowly lumber from violent act to violent act, with a pulse pounding score and lush imagery doing all the heavy lifting. There is but one scene, where Gosling’s Julian disembowels a corpse and sticks his hands in, that actually provokes a level of thought beyond mutilation. Otherwise, Only God Forgives is an unforgivable bore.
Drinking Buddies (4/5):
With a title like Drinking Buddies, the expectations for Joe Swanberg’s film were comedic in nature. Unfortunately, for those seeking a film detailing drunken debauchery and riotous parties, you’ll walk away surly and unfulfilled. There are comedic elements in play, but Drinking Buddies is a quaint examination of the thin line separating a romantic relationship from a deeply platonic one. Like any credible independent film about beer, our protagonists, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) , work at a craft brewery, where bike deliveries and grizzled beards are an occupational requirement. When they’re not at the brewery drinking and flirting with one another, Kate and Luke find themselves in prosperous romantic relationships. Granted, Kate’s connection with her boyfriend Paul (Ron Livingston) is waning. But Luke and Kate’s friendship teeters heavily towards the romantic side after a long weekend spent in a cabin with their significant others. They never consummate or entirely slip into a torrid romance, but they share a palpable intimacy that suggests they’re meant for more. We expect it, especially after their respective lovers initiate infidelity, but Drinking Buddies subverts expectations and takes a step back, and makes tender observations about an evolving relationship.
Normally, when a film challenges conventions I give the screenplay effusive praise, but it appears Swanberg’s screenplay merely functioned as an outline. Swanberg, instead of relying on convention and cliché, lets his actors mold a situation seemingly on the fly, allowing their instincts to take precedence. Because of this, he captures deeply affecting moments that feel as alive as a documentary. If there is but one downfall with this method, it’s that a lot of scenes needlessly drone on, vanquishing well-earned emotion and igniting irritation. But this issue is squelched by first-rate acting. Each actor at Swanberg’s disposal delivers sincere, tangible portrayals of people desperately looking for a fulfilling romance. Wilde and Johnson possess a potent chemistry that feeds much of the film’s emotional depth. Because of their chemistry, we inherently understand why the characters are constantly on the verge of becoming lovers, but Swanberg and the actors also explore the traits that keep the two friends apart. Their relationship never comes easy. Neither does the film, as it quietly deconstructs our expectations for a love story.