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On the one hand, Extraction is a very standard and almost retrograde film. It is a straightforward action movie, much like those of the 1980s and 90s that made performers like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme stars, as established brawny beefcake Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, an exceptionally talented ex-special forces operative (aren’t they all?) who is called in to perform, wouldn’t you know it, an extraction. Rake plunges into the dangerous world of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to rescue the son of a crime lord from another crime lord, takes on an entire army and seems to blow up half the city. It also plays to white saviour expectations as almost every person of colour Rake encounters is either a helpless victim or a violent criminal. We’ve pretty much seen all this before.
However, Extraction still manages to be a wildly entertaining ride, as stunt coordinator turned director Sam Hargrave embraces the action chase thriller wholeheartedly, and brings a genuine sense of punchy style and outright nastiness to the proceedings. Action films are often sanitised, but Extraction offers brutal violence, a sense of mental as well as physical anguish, and even consequence. Hargrave gives the film a relentless pace, director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel thrusting the viewer into the heart of the Dhaka streets and propelling the viewer through gunfights, car chases and intense physical altercations. This is best expressed in a blistering twelve minute long take along alley ways, up stairways and down walls, with enemies appearing at every turn and all manner of weapons coming into the fray. Think about Extraction and there are a lot of problems. Experience it and you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Blue Velvet is one thing, and also a David Lynch thing. ‘Lynchian’ is so distinctive as to have been included in the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the case of his really weird stuff like Eraserhead and Lost Highway, it is easy to see why. Blue Velvet has a more straightforward and comprehensible narrative than these, yet it is still very Lynchian. The ostensible notion of darkness and malevolence beneath the white picket fences of small-town Americana has been done to death by film noir and neo-noir which turned the city into a visual nightmare and morality into a morass of corruption, as well as more straightforward dramas like Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. And yet, Blue Velvet still possesses a power to shock and unsettle.
Blue Velvet’s plot is a fairly conventional neo-noir: Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) plays amateur detective after finding a human ear, gets limited help from the police, encounters a virtuous woman in Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) as well as a femme fatale in Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), delves into the seedier side of town and runs afoul of the criminal underworld manifested mainly (but not exclusively) in Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). This narrative would make for a gripping drama in its own right, and such filmmakers as John Dahl, Roman Polanski or Lawrence Kasdan would have made such material their own. In Lynch’s hands, the narrative takes second place to the style, with an almost woozy pace that gives the film a sense of inevitability rather than a more standard deadline narrative.
Lynch’s extreme close-ups are overt and eye-catching, such as his focus on grass and insects as well as the famous slow zoom into a human ear at the start of the film. Slow motion footage is also a Lynch signature, but on this watching of Blue Velvet, what struck me most were the extreme wide angles. Wide-angled shots of streets and rooms give a curious distortion to the image, which does obscure so much flatten objects, cars and figures appearing from a distance and drawing closer yet still somehow distanced.
This effect is most overt when Jeffrey pulls up in his car outside Sandy’s home and school, and also during scenes in weirdly expansive rooms. The most apparent of these are the apartments of Dorothy and also Ben (Dean Stockwell), whose home is both the prison of Dorothy’s husband and child and where Frank brings Jeffrey for a ‘party’. Long shots capture the expanse, with deep focus allowing us to see other figures in the background, but only just – what is with the guy in the background with the bizarre head?!
The wide angles are also evident in the notorious scenes in Dorothy’s apartment where Frank abuses her and also in the final confrontation between Jeffrey and Frank. The wide space makes these potentially claustrophobic scenes expansive, perhaps indicating that the violence and cruelty of Frank is not easily contained. Speaking of expanse, these scenes are also temporally protracted which makes them all the more discomfiting by implicating the viewer for continuing to watch. It is (again) a cliché to talk about voyeurism in this film but there it is, pretty hard to miss, in terms of viewing violence, then engaging with it, and finally practicing it. One can argue that Frank is in all of us, and so is Jeffrey.
The references to ‘a strange world’ sound naïve, surely deliberately so. The world is cruel and venal, figures like Frank and Jeffrey are not as outlandish as we wish they were. Therefore, it isn’t really strange, is it? And yet, come the coda, I find myself wondering if it might have all been a dream? The slow movement of the fire truck and the waving neighbours give this impression, as does as the zoom out of an ear that mirrors the early shot into an ear. This graphic reversal suggests that everything could have been Jeffrey’s dream. Even the final image of Dorothy with her son wearing a spinning-top hat could have been something Jeffrey saw and incorporated into his dream. But Lynch of course keeps this ambiguous, leading me eventually to conclude, maddeningly, that it is indeed a strange world.
As a white man, there is a word I will not say. The word is probably obvious – it is a pejorative with a specific meaning, but also a term with contested meanings within racial discourse. Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting explores this term as part of its dramatisation of race relations in contemporary America. The film emphasises the reality that it is never easy being black in the USA, especially at the current political climate. While many might appreciate this concept, Blindspotting follows the excellent BlacKkKlansman as another timely film about race in modern America, which expresses how appalling it is to live under the oppression of racial prejudice. Collin (Daveed Diggs) is a convicted felon three days from the end of his probation. Collin is focused on following the rules of his probation carefully while dealing with his ex-girlfriend, mother and stepfather, and with his volatile best friend and work colleague, Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin’s resolve to stay on the right side of the law becomes more complicated when he witnesses a police shooting of a black man. From this chance encounter, Blindspotting follows a ripple effect of interpersonal dramas that intertwine with broad socio-political concerns. Estrada deftly charts a series of conflicts, both in the immediate story and through judicious flashbacks that explain how Collin got to where he is. Racial tensions battle against personal loyalties; smart humour gives way to sudden violence; aerial shots of the gridlike city are juxtaposed with with close-ups of startled faces. Collin’s attempts to devise rap songs show how he makes sense of the world, and his regular fumbling over words and rhythm demonstrates how hard that sense is to come by. Interestingly, the clearest moments are also the most unnerving, indicating that nothing cuts through confusion better than anger and fear. Therefore, in a world of confusion, prejudice and blindspots, cyclical violence manifests as an escape, a cathartic release and even the suggestion of redemption. Yet rather than slipping into a disturbing glorification of toxic violent masculinity or (like the recent Obey) a depressing, deterministic depiction of black identity, Blindspotting never presents violence as anything other than a terrifying choice that is nevertheless still a choice. Therefore, it takes a responsible and compelling position towards problems with no easy solution, while also being a vibrant and at times amusing tale of social stratification and the struggle to go straight.
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.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a superb film. It is intelligently written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, skilfully directed by Matt Reeves (who effectively uses several of the techniques that worked to great effect in Cloverfield and Let Me In), well acted by a talented cast, beautifully shot by Michael Seresin and features truly astonishing visual effects by Weta Digital. The best compliment that can be offered to the effects is that they do not look like effects – at various moments one could swear there was actually a chimpanzee or orang-utan on screen or, at the very least, a performer in a physical suit rather a digital one. And what performers: Andy Serkis rises above Gollum, Kong and his previous performance as Caesar to deliver an astounding portrayal of familial devotion, loyalty, power and violence.
These themes are also central to The Godfather saga, which DOTPOA echoes in its exploration of family tensions and seemingly inevitable violence. We see two communities in conflict, with aggressive survivalists on either side: Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) among the humans and Koba (Toby Kebbell) among the apes, both of whom see only danger in the Other. Equally, there are diplomats who want the two communities to co-exist: Malcolm (Jason Clarke) for the humans and Caesar for the apes. These protagonists are all devoted to their families, Caesar and Malcolm fiercely protective of their respective mates and offspring. Similarly, Caesar, Koba and Dreyfus all give impassioned speeches to unite and motivate their communities. Great loyalty exists (initially) between Caesar and Koba as well as their fellow founders Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), as it does between Dreyfus and Malcolm. But each side vies for power in the post-simian flu world of the film, their pursuits fuelled by fear and hatred of the Other, and the film effectively explores the tensions and violence bred by this fear.
The detail of the physical and digital mise-en-scene (supported by on-location performance capture) effectively creates a difficult world to survive in, and this makes the suspicion of the apes and the desperation of the humans palatable. As a result, we are drawn into the escalating tensions until they erupt with terrifying violence. Rather than being a welcome release however, the battle sequences are presented as tragic. Once again, this is reminiscent of The Godfather, which features the steady damnation of Michael Corleone as he gives terrible orders. In DOTPOTA, we see the decline and eventual destruction of two civilised societies, a tragic loss of peace and harmony that the apes had and the humans could have had. Strikingly, the apes become more aggressive and destructive as they become more like humans, increasingly speaking with words rather than sign language and using technology (mainly guns and fire). The swift collapse of the two societies is unmitigated Elizabethan tragedy, DOTPOTA resonating as much with King Lear or Hamlet as previous entries in the POTA franchise as well as other post-apocalyptic dramas such as The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009) and The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers, 2010) (which also featured Gary Oldman). It is the grimmest of blockbusters, beginning with the collapse of human civilisation in its startling opening animation, and ending with the first skirmish in (presumably) the War of the Planet of the Apes.
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.