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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.
Two late releases of 2012 were both touted as making great use of 3D. The first was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the last hugely anticipated and hyped film of the year. Not only would this be a 3D release, Peter Jackson had filmed his return to Middle Earth in 48 frames per second, which would (apparently) create a more vivid, living image. In an interview, Jackson explained that 48 FPS turned the cinema screen into a window, through which one could look into the other world of the film, feeling oneself there in the vividness of the image. By contrast, one review of An Unexpected Journey described it as like looking at an HD television, which rather diminished the cinema experience.
To save money, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D, at 24 FPS. My simple response: we’re back! I loved it – the level of detail applied to every aspect of Middle Earth was superb. The Hobbit is a more homely tale than The Lord of the Rings, and more time is spent in Bag End, with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bustling about with his crockery and preparing supper. Once Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves arrive, the party is a prolonged affair that feels hectic yet comfortable and homely. This was a group of people I’d be happy to sit down to dinner with.
Despite the length of the scene, and the film as a whole, Jackson paces the action well, moving smoothly from set piece to set piece. An Unexpected Journey could be criticised for having a plot that consists entirely of set pieces, but when that it is the plot of the novel it is hard to see the film being different. And what set pieces, from the prologue featuring the coming of Smaug and the exodus of the Dwarves, to a dangerous walk along narrow mountains paths as living mountains batter each other to pieces; from the desperate dash and spell-casting of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in Mirkwood to the helter-skelter running battle through the halls of the Goblin King; and the climatic battle with the Orcs of Azog the Defiler (Man Bennett) aboard their Wargs at the edge of a precipice, on a toppling tree, which is on fire. The one scene I could have done without featured the three trolls, but since they are referenced and even appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, I understand why it had to be included.
Perhaps the most effective set piece, however, is a battle of wits rather than swords, in the form of Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis). Gollum’s first appearance acknowledges the viewer’s familiarity with what has previously been seen in The Lord of the Rings, as he is heard before he appears, muttering and hacking, and it takes time before he is revealed in his entirety. The game of riddles is a smooth, engaging sequence, allowing both performers space to express their situations – in Bilbo’s case fear and increasing desperation; for Gollum, eagerness and increasing frustration. The scene segues perfectly into a chase, and despite the relative unimportance of the Ring to the overall plot of The Hobbit, it still receives emphasis befitting the viewer’s familiarity with the magical object, as well as Bilbo’s important choice when he has Gollum at his mercy.
The best element of An Unexpected Journey is its eponymous character, as Martin Freeman delivers one of the most engaging performances of the year. More varied than Gandalf, less doom-laden than Frodo, Bilbo stands out from the other characters of the Tolkien-verse by the possession of a sense of humour. The Lord of the Rings can be criticised for being rather dour, but The Hobbit had several moments that were laugh out loud funny (personal favourite: comedy faint). Similarly, whereas the Fellowship was quickly assembled and the drama focused upon it falling apart, much of the drama in An Unexpected Journey is concerned with Bilbo proving himself to his travelling companions, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage). Described as an amalgamation of Aragorn and Boromir, Thorin is the grim-faced and troubled hero, and the antagonistic development of his relationship with Bilbo gives the film real heart. The moment at which the reluctant hobbit and the obsessed dwarf reconcile is moving and heart-warming, and helps to set up what is to come. For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we can expect a united company encountering further dangers.
Everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey worked because of an intelligent script by Jackson and his co-writers Phyllida Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro, Weta’s superb production design, bravura performances from all concerned, and Jackson’s fluid direction that easily slips between different plot points and gives attention to different characters, drawing the viewer into this magical world. There were a couple of points when I wondered how it would look in 3D, and whether 48 FPS would add anything to the experience. Perhaps it would, but that enhancement would not be integral to what was on screen. The high definition digital filming does make a different, as that itself creates a more detailed image than film can provide. Digital film has been growing ever more prevalent, especially since Michael Mann gave LA a digital noir look in Collateral. Mann’s own Miami Vice and Public Enemies made further use of HD digital film, and more recently Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography was one of the most striking elements of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks gorgeous in HD, as we see the fine lines of the actors’ features, the individual blades of grass in the Shire, the leaves of Mirkwood and the intricate details of Elvish architecture in Rivendell. Digital film adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the cinema image, which we can have at home as well thanks to Blu-Ray and HD TV, so I am all for this particular development in the cinematic art form. 3D would be fine if it didn’t cost extra, but without it, I don’t think I’m missing much.
I rate this as one of my favourite films ever, although it is not quite the scariest. I have also seen it many times and performed some detailed analysis of the narrative, mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. This much analysis could lessen its impact, but The Silence of the Lambs never fails to draw me in, particularly in its most chilling moments. Both Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) are terrifying creations that could so easily have been crass and lurid, but director Jonathan Demme uses a strikingly sparse approach, both narratively and stylistically. This sparseness has the effect of focusing the viewer’s attention on the events unfolding, and the focus exacerbates the fear.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) provides a viewer’s surrogate. For much of the film we are aligned with her, learning more about Buffalo Bill through her conversations with Dr. Lecter as well as autopsies and other parts of her investigation. Jodie Foster has been rightly praised as giving one of the great screen performances, and on my first viewing I was struck by the film being very much about her. Not only do we experience her intellectual investigation, but her compassion, discomfort and eventual fear are all beautifully expressed, both by Foster’s performance and Demme’s direction. A particular technique used is subjective camera angles, with conversations shot face-on rather than a more typical over-the-shoulder shot. When Starling and Dr. Lecter converse, the shot/reverse-shot pattern fills the frame with their faces, which is especially unnerving when Dr. Lecter is staring out at you. Anthony Hopkins uses a simple technique of not blinking, making his stare all the more unsettling.
Hopkins is sometimes criticised for being something of a ham, and in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) and (to a lesser extent) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) there are grounds for that. But in The Silence of the Lambs he is perfectly restrained, as part of Demme’s sparse approach. Impressions often misrepresent the famous “FFFFFF” over the census taker’s liver, hamming it up beyond what Hopkins does. Like the film as a whole, his performance is tightly wound and precisely focused.
The film’s precision and sparseness make the moments of violence all the more shocking and frightening. Dr. Lecter’s escape from his elaborate cage is ghastly in its unrestrained savagery, and the baroque display he leaves behind expresses the monstrous intelligence behind such brutality. But his most frightening moments are psychological, his psyche boring into Starling’s to expose her vulnerabilities and leave her open to a disturbingly invasive interrogation.
Invasion is a key theme throughout The Silence of the Lambs. Gumb’s attempt to transform into a female is an invasion of his own identity and, more disturbingly, that of his victims. The women slain and skinned by Gumb not only have their bodies invaded, but their minds as well with the psychological torture inflicted in his well, demonstrated through the suffering of Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). Furthermore, Gumb invades their very identity by appropriating them for his own purposes. In her meetings with Dr. Lecter, Starling’s mind is invaded as he identifies her concerns and forces her to confront her central fear, manifested by the screaming of the lambs. In conversations, I have heard criticisms of Starling’s central fear, questioning the credibility of such an event being so traumatic. To me, it does not matter whether I or anyone else would find a particular event upsetting or traumatising – this is Starling’s fear and it matters to her, and I have always found her sufficiently engaging to accept her position. The point is not what her trauma is, but that she has one, which Dr. Lecter identifies and forces her to confront. Call it fear therapy.
The invasions work on a wider scale as well, as the genre of The Silence of the Lambs is a source for debate. Narratively, it is a detective thriller, but a detective story invaded by tropes and elements of horror. Horror moments abound: the storage unit Starling explores; the Gothic-esque halls of the Smithsonian where she meets the etymologists; the death’s head moth itself. The climactic sequence in Gumb’s cellar is both an invasion of his space by Starling, and an invasion into her security as she is viewed through Gumb’s night vision goggles. Starling’s final victory over Gumb breaks the window of his cellar, allowing sunlight to invade this dark recess, but the bright, sunlit places are themselves invaded, as the final scene features Dr. Lecter at an island resort, watching Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) whom, he indicates, will shortly be on the menu. Buffalo Bill is disposed of, but there are still monsters out there, stalking.
A key component of horror cinema is cruelty, the continued depiction of people being hurt or persecuted. Action cinema focuses on the hero fighting back and demonstrating their ability to take control of their situation. Horror continues the subjugation, cruelly prolonging the plight of its characters. Even when Starling should have Gumb cornered, the film’s cruelty continues as we watch her plight in POV shots from Gumb’s perspective. Horror cinema compels us to watch the disturbing and horrific events through long takes, static camera and subjective shots. If we are to maintain our engagement in the film, we must continue to endure this cruelty. The end credits of The Silence of the Lambs perpetuates the film’s cruelty by not fading to black as a long take continues over the street, people walking about their daily lives, with Dr. Lecter having disappeared into the distance. We want him to reappear, perhaps even to be caught, but the film tantalises us with this possibility, perhaps inducing us to check the front door is locked.
I first saw The Silence of the Lambs on a very small TV, with a single speaker, in black and white. Despite the basic viewing conditions, I was utterly hooked and thoroughly petrified. I have subsequently seen it many times, on DVD and in colour, on a much larger TV, and it still grips and chills me in equal measure. Other Thomas Harris adaptations have varied in quality – Hannibal is operatic but rather silly; Red Dragon is taught but fairly ordinary (I am yet to see or read Hannibal Rising [Peter Webber, 2007]). Before all of these came Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), which I have a close relationship with. Manhunter is a fascinating film, operating on a number of stylistic, narratological, psychological and philosophical levels. It is striking, compelling and at times disturbing, but I would not call it frightening. The Silence of the Lambs, however, remains both shocking and disturbing in equal measure, and one of the scariest films I have seen. Not quite the scariest though.