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‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a yardie’. No character in Yardie says this line, yet Idris Elba’s directorial debut echoes Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with its tale of the rites of passage through criminal syndicates. With its period detail and tactile sense of time and place, Elba’s adaptation of Victor Headley’s novel immerses the viewer in its milieu, its use of London also recalling David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with an added Jamaican flavour. The narrative includes familiar genre tropes of revenge, redemption, how one defines identity and the tensions between men being men and women being sensible. The theme of immigration adds a distinctive element to the film, as Jamaican culture feeds both the yardie mentality and a non-criminal lifestyle. Elba handles the interpersonal drama effectively, allowing a very impressive cast to shine. Elba also displays confidence and flair as a director, especially with such devices as freeze frames and non-sequential editing. Various sequences begin, continue and end, but key moments from these sequences appear and reappear later, often with additional detail. This emphasises the film’s conceits of trauma and haunting, as our protagonist Dennis (Aml Ameen) is psychologically trapped in a formative moment, an experience that he cannot escape even when his location changes from Kingston to London. As the film follows Dennis’ progress, there is a constant sense of enclosure, demonstrated with claustrophobic framing and close quarters. The one avenue for escape comes from music, brilliantly realised with an atmospheric soundtrack, that takes centre stage at key points. These include an attempt at an armistice between warring gangs, and later as a possible road to redemption for Dennis. Yet the musical and the criminal pathways are intertwined, and Dennis’ status remains fluid and liminal. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent, which is a sign of the film’s strength. Not only is it worth seeing in its own right, but Yardie raises expectations for what Elba may do next.
Looking over this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Actor in a Leading Role, we see four previous nominees, three of them in this category, and two previous wins for one of them. Denzel Washington has a towering acting, and this seventh nomination for his performance in Fences, fourth for Actor in a Leading Role, could lead to a third win after previous gongs for Supporting Actor for Glory and Leading Actor for Training Day. Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic and Ryan Gosling for La La Land are previous nominees for Lead Actor, for Eastern Promises and Half Nelson, respectively, while Casey Affleck, up for Manchester by the Sea, was previously nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge is therefore the only first time nominee, and at 33 the youngest of the nominees. The average age for the Best Actor winner over the last twenty years has been 44, so Garfield is unlikely to win this time. Similarly, the attention paid to Mortensen has been minimal, so if he were to win, it would be something of an upset. Therefore, this appears to be a three horse race.
The three performances are as different as the films they are in, but all have elements in their favour. The Academy often rewards those who develop new skills for roles (see Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant), and Gosling did learn to play the piano and perform his own dance numbers in La La Land. Plus, he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Washington’s performance is more varied, including at times moving with the caution of an aged man. At 62, Washington is the oldest nominee and the Academy often rewards older performers – in the past two decades, only seven Best Actor winners have been under the age of 40. In addition, Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award so clearly impressed his peers. Affleck’s performance is the more insular: hunched, mumbled, expressing through his eyes and minimal body language, his performance reminiscent of Marlon Brando in his prime, but without the physically imposing form. This makes Affleck’s utter domination of the screen in Manchester by the Sea all the more impressive, as he draws the viewer’s attention through the tiniest of gestures and the quietest of sounds. Plus, he is 41, making him the most average age nominee (like Garfield, Gosling is younger than the typical winner). Not that there is anything average about Affleck’s performance, and it does not hurt his chances that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama,and the BAFTA for Best Actor. Come Oscar night, I anticipate Ben’s little brother will be delivering another heartfelt if somewhat stumbling acceptance speech.
Who you gonna call when wealthy white men own everything or pay the authorities to look the other way? According to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer, you need to call a middle-aged, working-class black man, who turns to a retired woman when he needs assistance. Demographics are the most interesting aspect of this adaptation of the 1980s TV series about a former special forces operative who takes up the cause for those oppressed by organised crime and corrupt authorities. As a result, it succeeds in being far more engaging than similar vigilante thrillers such as Taken (and several other Liam Neeson vehicles such as Non-Stop and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones) and Man On Fire (which also starred Denzel Washington).
Dramatically, The Equalizer suffers when it is too much – at least two sub-plots could have been excised to make it more streamlined and towards the finale, there is unnecessary use of slo-mo to make the action more dramatic, when it would have benefitted from being more succinct. Politically, the film expresses faith in systems of law, order and justice, but claims that greed and power lead to these being corrupted (hardly original) and it is the task of the proletariat to challenge abuse and corruption. Perhaps less progressively, this challenge is violent and destructive as Robert McCall (Washington) easily murders multiple Russian gangsters, batters dirty cops to a pulp and uses any number of improvised weapons to equalise the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless. The film is generically simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil – the bad guys are so bad that they clearly deserve the grisly deaths they meet and all their victims are innocent and downtrodden, while McCall is carefully constructed to ensure normally that we support him. He is helpful and generous to those around him, especially his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) whom he helps with a job application, as well as abused prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). His employment at a hardware store and use of everyday tools like hammers, corkscrews, nail guns and barb wire further establish his proletariat credentials, in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of the gangsters he confronts. But while the violence in The Equalizer is presented as necessary and justified, it is not (for the most part) glorified or presented as redemptive.
Key to the film’s treatment of violence is Washington’s performance. Whereas other powerful performers such as Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro can be accused of coasting, Washington is never less than an utterly magnetic screen presence. His previous collaboration with Fuqua, Training Day, won him a Best Actor Oscar, largely thanks to David Ayer’s acerbic script (for other instances, see the similarly themed Ayer-written-and-directed Harsh Times and End of Watch). Richard Wenk’s script is more simplistic and less concerned with sociological and sub-cultural detail (for an intimate presentation of Russian gangsters, see Eastern Promises), but Washington demonstrates, as he has throughout his career, how much he brings to even a simplistic character. In scenes with Teri and Ralphie, McCall is jovial and amiable, but in the scenes of violence, he becomes cold, implacable and almost inhuman. This aspect of the performance prevents the violence from being glorified – instead it is mechanical and functional, a necessary response to the (gleeful) violence of the Russian gangsters and dirty cops, McCall like an antibody attacking an infection. Washington’s performance is understated, avoiding the guilt-ridden histrionics of Man On Fire and the grandstanding of Training Day and American Gangster. He hints at a great deal but clarifies little behind his hooded eyes other than his ability to assess and deal with threats (reminiscent of scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). This mystery makes him a cypher, a representative of the downtrodden, including black people, Latinos, women and the working class. While The Equalizer suffers from narrative and stylistic excess, when it focuses on its central figure, what he does and what he represents, it makes interesting claims about sites of resistance.
Only God Forgives is an extremely ‘arty’ film – languorous and deliberate, seemingly opaque, potentially pretentious. It has very little plot and even less characterisation. The visual palette largely consists of prolonged takes in long shot, capturing both cavernous and intimate spaces in deep focus, as performers walk, reach and turn their heads or even their eyes in extreme slow motion. This emphasises the placement of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and the other characters within the highly expressive mise-en-scene, which is really the star of the film. It may seem strange to praise the scenery, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is more concerned with mood than plot and character, and the film expresses theme through a visual composition of set design and colour scheme that positively throbs with meaning.
Multiple viewers and critics have lambasted Only God Forgives or at least advised caution upon seeing the film, especially due to its lack of sympathetic or even engaging characters. Such characters are not unusual in Refn’s films, as the eponymous character of Bronson is psychotic and Gosling’s Driver is inscrutable and blank. This conceit is taken further in Only God Forgives as the characters are largely cyphers, expressive of the underlying forces that bleed into the slow motion and mise-en-scene, particularly the extensive use of red light that led at least one reviewer to describe it as film rouge rather than film noir.
A recurring topic on this blog has been characterisation, and whether it is essential for audience engagement. When I hear the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”, I often ask “What about everything else?” and am met with blank stares, as though I had asked if you enjoy conversations with yoghurts. In the case of Only God Forgives, I appreciate that the lack of characterisation is a noticeable absence in the film. As Julian, Gosling takes the strong, silent type to a new level, having only 22 lines of dialogue in the film (about the same as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator). When he speaks, it is almost a painful effort, as though he is reluctant to express himself. Most of his lines are monosyllabic, and the only time he expresses strong emotion his shout turns into an almost childlike scream. This is reminiscent of Gosling’s last role, Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, who displays childlike naivety and, in one scene, screams like a petulant infant. In both cases, the high-pitched scream undermines the power of the character, Gosling’s voice contradicting the poise of his physical presence.
Despite his “Photoshopped” physique, Gosling is not an especially large man, yet he is capable of conveying significant gravity through his remarkable screen presence, but writers/directors like Derek Cianfrance as well as Refn play with this presence, undermining it with losses of control, such as the scene in Only God Forgives when Julian screams at his preferred prostitute, Mai (Rhatha Phongam).
Crystal is rather more talkative, having several amusingly filthy speeches that suggest the strained relationship between her and her son:
[To Mai]: And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?
And what with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock… Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was… oh, it was enormous!
Julian’s lack of reaction to his mother’s unflattering comparison between him and deceased brother Billy (Tom Burke) indicates that he is used to taking Crystal’s abuse, not reacting, and largely following her instructions. Yet even in his obedience, Julian is a disappointment, Crystal taking charge when her son does not measure up to her expectations following Billy’s murder. The viewer can get a sense that Julian’s own identity was largely ignored by his family, and his tightlippedness is a symptom of a childhood in which he was seldom if ever heard.
I interpret this character detail but there is little evidence to support it. The lack of character detail however did not prevent my engagement with Only God Forgives, because I have great fondness for film stylistics. The long takes, highly designed mise-en-scene and overwhelming soundtrack constituted an immersive cinematic experience for me, and the people moving within it were, literally, part of the expressive scenery. And while dialogue is sparse, the film is anything but quiet. Since Inception, many soundtrack composers have favoured the use of a booming sound, referred to by some as BRRRRRRRAAAAAWWWWRWRRRMRMRMMRMRMMMMM!!! In Only God Forgives, the soundtrack doesn’t boom – it roars. Various scenes begin with a strange roaring scream that emphasises the impending danger and the underlying menace that permeates the entire film. Earlier in the year, I described Man of Steel as using the trope of swelling – Only God Forgives is a constantly throbbing film, not because of a constant sexual presence, more a throbbing sense of scarcely-contained violence. Violence is a recurring theme in Refn’s work, as demonstrated in Bronson and Drive, but whereas they focused on violent men, Only God Forgives depicts a violent world, in which the cypher characters are merely manifestations or even conduits for the violence that constantly throbs and sometimes erupts.
Sexuality is part of the throbbing violence, as the film’s sexual events demonstrate violence in sexuality – Billy’s murder is retaliation for his rape and murder of a sixteen-year old girl, and Julian’s session with Mai involves him being tied to a chair while she touches herself. The scene implies that Julian’s own sexuality is eruptive and violent like his brother’s, so he has himself physically restrained in order to prevent an incident.
No such restraints are necessary for Chang, who is presented as a manifestation of punishment for the guilty. If only God forgives, Chang is the Angel of Death, there to arrange the meeting. Chang speaks through perfectly applied action as well as verbal lessons that he delivers with his brutal sentences. These sentences are the film’s striking scenes of violence, which are hideous both in their brutality and in their foreshadowing. Chang’s very presence exudes danger, and his slow, deliberate drawing of a concealed sword throbs with portent. Nor is the sword for show, as limbs are lopped, ribcages slit and throats pierced. The precise application of violence is presented in exquisite detail, including the agonised screams of Chang’s victims, the slow, almost balletic sprays of blood and the lingering shots of the bodies mutilated by Chang’s actions. Whereas in Bronson and Drive, violence erupted suddenly and without warning, it is a constant undercurrent throughout Only God Forgives, the mood of the film leaving the viewer in no doubt that violence will erupt – the only question is when.
The one unconvincing element of Only God Forgives is the karaoke scenes, when Chang sings to the police. The scenes are not necessarily incongruous, indeed they maintain Chang’s celestial status by giving him an angelic song. The karaoke even makes sense from a character perspective, as this is the way Chang unwinds. But tonally, the scenes interrupt the grim menace of the film as a whole, coming across as simply odd and therefore jarring in an inscrutable and frustrating manner. But as the whole film is inscrutable and frustrating, perhaps that is the point.
Karaoke aside, Only God Forgives is a treat for the cineaste, because of its highly expressive visual composition. Every scene, whether it is Julian examining his fists, Crystal smoking in her hotel suite or Chang drawing his sword, displays exquisite visual detail that throbs with meaning. It is also reminiscent of the work of other directors, much like other films by Refn. Bronson is similar to A Clockwork Orange, and I described Drive as the best Michael Mann film that Michael Mann did not direct. Only God Forgives is what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg collaborated on a film. The sense of something lurking beneath the surface, expressed through the lighting and production design, echoes Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet, while long, static takes of corridors are reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.
The eerie beauty of shots depicting bodily injury echo Cronenberg’s work such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, especially in a surreal and disturbing scene in which Julian finds the corpse of his mother, executed by Chang, and touches the bloodstained ruin of her abdomen. It is as though he is looking for a way back into her womb, a return to the only place he might have felt safe and wanted. Refn may not have consciously sought to emulate these directors, but his film does suggest their stylistic and thematic concerns.
This lack of explicit meaning may explain both the positive and negative reactions to Only God Forgives. The slow motion, excessive design, lack of character, plot and dialogue, leave an absence into which the viewer can place their own understanding. I have suggested background features of Julian, but these are speculative and drawn from my own interpretation of the events onscreen. Minimal onscreen background can suggest style for style’s sake, Refn concentrating on hyperbolic lighting, set design and cinematography to compensate for a lack of story. But it also allows more interpretation on the part of the viewer, requiring us to fill in the blanks. Mainstream cinema is intensely plot driven, with character development generally integrated into that of the narrative. Arthouse cinema, typically, operates in contrast to mainstream conventions of narrative and style, and Only God Forgives certainly offers this contrast. It can be argued that it goes too far into being ‘arty’, but the minimalist plot and cypher characters allow for the film and viewer to work together in creating meaning, rather than meaning being explicit. This is not to suggest that those who found Only God Forgives frustrating are incapable of deciding on the meaning of a cinematic text for themselves, but highlights that this film has particular pleasures for those who enjoy filling in the blanks as to character background and the implications of expressive style.
These pleasures made Only God Forgives a great experience for me – it is intensely cinematic and a treat for those who enjoy cinematic features, techniques and tropes. This is not to say that only those with my background and taste (a pretty narrow demographic) will enjoy the film, but it demonstrates the particular pleasures that can be found in films that eschew the mainstream elements like detailed plot and rounded characters. Only God Forgives is not an easy film to love, but I came away with a lot of love for it.