Reviews: OBVIOUS CHILD and WHITEY

A24

OBVIOUS CHILD is a bit obvious. It tries hard to normalize abortion, and it generally succeeds for its 83 minutes. The movie is fun to watch, not least because its main character, Donna Stern, and the actress playing her, Jenny Slate, are both hilarious. Donna’s standup is a mix of personal material and observational humor with just the right amount of raunchy, sort of like Louis CK, but she sometimes makes her material a bit too personal, which may be why she’s not more successful.

The film wisely avoids cliché romantic comedy territory, though as my wife pointed out, Donna’s one-night stand/baby daddy/sort-of boyfriend Max is a bit of a cardboard cut-out: sweet, sensitive, and successful, what more could a woman want? But the characters generally feel pretty real. When Donna’s mother, for example, makes Donna a spreadsheet of her career prospects in one scene and comforts her after Donna tells the mother about her upcoming abortion in another, it feels like she’s the same person.

The ‘obvious’ part of the film is its political agenda. It works hard to make abortion seem normal and a good choice for many women because no other mainstream American film (that I know of) has done so. Even in other ‘hipster comedies’ like KNOCKED UP, abortion is never considered a viable option. In OBVIOUS CHILD, Donna asks for an abortion right after learning that she’s pregnant, without missing a beat. I enjoyed this moment, but when Donna’s mother tells a heartfelt story about her own illegal abortion, and when Donna exchanges a smile with another young woman after her procedure, I felt tempted to say ‘I get it.’ In any event, it’s a good message, which I agree with—if any non-pro-choice readers also saw the film and have thoughts, I’d love to hear!

WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER is a documentary (not to be confused with WHITY…oh, that Fassbinder) about the trial of ‘Whitey’ Bulger, criminal kingpin of South Boston from the seventies to the early nineties. Whitey was a scary guy—in fact, he was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in THE DEPARTED. The documentary covers his 2013 criminal trial, before which Whitey was on the lam and the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Like OBVIOUS CHILD, WHITEY tries a bit too hard. One of the central issues in Bulger’s trial is whether he was an informant for the FBI. U.S. Attorneys claim that he was, which allowed him to avoid criminal charges for over twenty years. Bulger’s defense attorneys claim that his FBI contacts sold Bulger information for money, not the other way around. When Whitey claims that the head U.S. Attorney (now dead) had approached him for protection from the Italian mafia, it starts to seem like the integrity of the U.S. government is on trial.

This probably sounds confusing—I’m a bit confused myself. As these issues multiply and pile on top of each other in Whitey’s trial, it and the film turn into a bit of a circus. Though the film does a good job of educating the viewer about the different people and organizations in the story, there is no resolution about the nature of Whitey’s relationship with the government, because it was never answered at the trial. It seems like the filmmakers were expecting more answers than they ended up getting.

The film seems to take Whitey’s side, oddly enough; the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office are portrayed as corrupt and dishonest. I don’t know why it turned out this way. Perhaps Whitey’s defense team saw an opportunity to use the film as propaganda, because they spend far more time on camera than the prosecutors do. The most moving and worthwhile part of the movie is when relatives of Whitey’s murder victims and a man who was himself extorted by Whitey get a chance to speak out. Unfortunately, the red herring of government corruption took over Whitey’s trial and left the reality of the people whose lives he damaged by the wayside. The tragedy of the film is that it suffers the same fate.

New short film: ARCADE ORATORY

Rishi Gandhi & Renzo Adler

My friends Rishi Gandhi and Renzo Adler recently finished making a great short film, ARCADE ORATORY. I’ll let them sum up the premise:

Where do arcade games go to die? Arcade Oratory is a journey inside a closed down arcade and a look back at the days of arcade gaming when companies like Capcom and SNK demanded your quarters.

It was a pleasure seeing the work these guys turned out because they’re such good friends, but I quite enjoyed the film on its own merits. The camera-work is excellent…I can’t believe they got these games, and particularly the shots of them being played, to look so good. I visited this place as a kid too, and it didn’t look nearly as good as it does in this film. I really found myself wanting to go back there again.

I also love the central character, Saul Zandy. There is something off-color about him that I can’t really put my finger on. I mean, he’s clearly a weird dude, but even besides that…(SPOILER ALERT:) why is this guy sitting at a table on a rooftop waiting to have a drink with someone who never shows? Why does he look shiftless and uncomfortable as he says goodbye, leaving the quiet cameraman to find his own ride home?

Give the film a look, and let me know in the comments section if you enjoyed it.

Blindsided by PARIS, TEXAS (Part one)

20th Century Fox

Dispatches from Cape Cod: This incomplete post is my second entry in the Blind Spot series created by The Matinee. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this film soon, but for now these three paragraphs will have to suffice. Ryan’s entry this month: GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS. Click through for more entries in the series.

I’m trying to write about PARIS, TEXAS, and it’s proving difficult. PARIS, TEXAS is a beautiful film. It’s like watching a Western tone poem/folk tale. I’ve had a hard time writing about it because there’s so much to say. I felt so many things while I watched this movie: awe, sadness, frustration, longing, and above all was a sense of being in the presence of beauty. The film’s gorgeous Texas landscapes (courtesy of cinematographer Robby Müller) are a fitting backdrop for its moving story.

I’m really torn in writing about it, because part of the pleasure of the film for me was in watching it without knowing anything about it. All I knew was that it’s directed by Wim Wenders and stars Harry Dean Stanton. I hadn’t seen a preview or read any synopsis, so I literally had no idea where the film would take me. Watching it like this was unpredictable, emotional, and engrossing.

All I’ll say for now is that the film is about a man (Harry Dean Stanton) found wandering in the south Texan desert without water, a voice, or memories. I’ll leave his background as a mystery, like it was to me. Every scene of this film was a fresh discovery for me, gradually forming into the mosaic of this man’s life. I’m working on a larger treatment of the film that will try to document my responses to it as it unfolded, but in the meantime I urge you to watch it. Don’t read anything else about it. Don’t learn what it’s about (if you don’t already know). Just watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

THE ACT OF KILLING review: Death in Indonesia

Drafthouse Films

At last! June has been a busy month in my personal life, but I haven’t forgotten about this post. My wife helped me edit it to perfection. It was a tough film to watch, and to write about, but I’m glad I did it. Be aware that I describe a lot of the film’s content in this review, so if you want to be ‘surprised,’ save the reading as a postscript. Enjoy!

THE ACT OF KILLING is about four Indonesian death squad leaders, who talk about their experiences killing suspected Communists during the massacres of 1965-66. The ‘star’ of the film is Anwar Congo, a famous preman (this is an Indonesian gangster, but as they say repeatedly in the film, the word comes from the English ‘free man’). Anwar says he killed about a thousand people. He beat many to death and decapitated some, but he strangled most of his victims with wire. As Anwar explains, beating his victims left a lot of blood behind, whereas strangling made it easier to clean up the bodies.

This is a documentary. This stuff really happened, though I feel sick writing it out. I had to pause this film several times to get snacks or do other things. I was disengaging because it was so difficult to watch. How could it be real? Anwar Congo claims that he murdered approximately one thousand people, for which he is now considered a hero. These people are still very powerful in Indonesia, and they speak openly about their brutal acts in the film. They describe their actions without feeling or remorse. They explain why Communism was poison and had to be eradicated, making mass murder the only viable solution. They admit that some of their victims may not have been Communists, but when they suspected someone, they acted immediately. The killers all seem like violent, irredeemable people. It’s painful to think people like this exist, and they’re even celebrated for their actions.

The filmmakers asked the killers to write and choreograph some scenes depicting the reality or spirit of their deeds. The premans dressed themselves up and recruited civilians to portray Communists and killers from that era. In these scenes families are terrorized, Communist sympathizers are tortured and murdered, and a village is burned down. A death squad assaults and rapes a woman they accuse of being a Communist (one of the killers, Herman Koto, dresses in drag for this role). Fanciful interludes with beautiful dancers break the tension, and in one interlude, a man removes a wire noose from around his neck, gives Anwar a medal, and thanks him for ‘sending me to heaven.’

The ‘movie’ these men think they’re making is nonsensical and horrifying. I want to make sense of these men’s minds. Are they unrepentant psychopaths? Are they hungry for power, and happen to be swept up in an abhorrent cultural purge? Are they so ignorant they accepted everything that was said to them about Communists and took on the role of executioners out of love for their country?

When Anwar and Herman talk about their days as young gangsters scalping movie tickets, they say their killings were partially inspired by the American films they watched: gangster movies starring Marlon Brando and the like. Some of their reenactment scenes reflect this: the killers dress in stylish suits and fedoras and act like wiseguys. I like gangster films too, but I feel conflicted after seeing them referenced in this way. Maybe it’s naïve of me not to expect violent films to encourage imitators, but I know that I’m not a violent person, and I know I don’t enjoy gangster films because of the vicarious experience of violence.

The best films about violence try to explain why their subjects act the way they do, and make a statement about their place in society, like THE ACT OF KILLING does. GOODFELLAS, for example, starts out by glorifying Henry Hill’s high-class gangster lifestyle. We come to enjoy the perks of the profession, and his crimes don’t really seem so bad: just beating up a few people in the service of his robberies, which generally come out of the pockets of corporations. As the film progresses, murder becomes commonplace and we see just how unhinged these people really are. Our identification turns into repulsion.

Clearly some people watch these films and miss the forest for the trees. Commentaries about violence become instructions for behaving violently. The preman reenactment scenes are poorly written and shot: the dialogue is laughable at best, and the low-budget visual effects are thoroughly unconvincing. The only convincing parts are the performances of the lay people who play victims. They’re acting out a piece of their history. When they get wrapped up in these scenes, they truly seem to begin fearing for their lives, which is unnerving. Is this how Anwar and Herman see violent Hollywood films, as celebrations of human misery?

I can’t accept the things these men did. But at least, like the best gangster dramas, THE ACT OF KILLING has a clear conscience to it. Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s feelings about the killers’ actions are obvious from the beginning, and as the film progresses he asks them tougher questions. They are surprisingly not one-dimensional people. Anwar speaks openly about his recurrent nightmares of his victims returning to him and accusing him of murder.

Towards the end of the film, Anwar plays the victim in an intimate reenactment scene. Herman interrogates Anwar violently and then ‘kills’ him with a wire. Anwar gets overwhelmed and says that he now feels what his victims felt. Oppenheimer points out that Anwar knew the scene was make-believe, whereas his victims knew they were going to die.

Maybe this was mob mentality channeled through the actions of a few individuals. Maybe they were predisposed to violence, and were nurtured and supported by the social institutions surrounding them. We can’t know the answer, but be assured that you will still be trying to explain it to yourself many days after watching THE ACT OF KILLING. Whatever their reasons were, conscience returns to at least one of these men by the end of the film, which was cathartic for me to see. This film is a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary one. The evil these filmmakers are depicting really exists, whether or not we choose to see it. But I’m grateful they gave me a small reason to feel hopeful by the end.

Next week: Blindsided by PARIS, TEXAS!

Blindsided by SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

United Artists

This is an entry in the Blind Spot series created by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee, where writers watch a classic film they had so far avoided seeing, and then write about it. Check out Ryan’s latest on LE SAMOURAI, and then scroll down to find more entries in the series! I’ll be contributing monthly entries for the rest of 2014.

Also, next week I will finally put up my post on THE ACT OF KILLING…it was a tough one to write!

Ouch. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is brutal. The characters in this movie are such dirty rotten filth that they made me ashamed of my own species. But it’s brilliant too, it’s a bloody masterpiece. I was glued to that screen from start to finish. Why couldn’t I stop watching this film?

SSOS is about Sidney Falco, a slimier-than-slimy press agent in New York. He is hungry for success, and he’s willing to sell out any average Joe to get it. He has built a relationship with J. J. Hunsecker, a powerful newspaper columnist who sways the opinions of the city, maybe even the country. Falco thinks he can rely on Hunsecker to print tibdits about Falco’s clients, but these types of relationships are always tenuous. For some reason, Hunsecker wants Falco to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s sister and a local jazz guitarist, and he’s not going to help Falco anymore until it happens.

The big draw in this film is Tony Curtis. He is electrifying as Falco, a handsome devil who’s so self-assured that he charmed me the way he charms most of the women in the film. Falco thinks fast and talks faster. He’s always eager to jump on that opportunity for success. The director Alexander Mackendrick makes Falco as sympathetic as he can; when things don’t go Falco’s way, the camera zooms in and Curtis sports his best sad puppy-dog face. At times, I even felt sorry for him.

The Hunseckers are Falco’s kryptonite. Falco can stay one step ahead of anyone except J.J., and he can charm any woman except for J.J.’s sister Susan. Hunsecker represents everything Falco aspires to: fame, power, and the ability to sway millions of opinions. He treats senators and businessmen like his lackeys, and he’s self-righteous enough all the while to fancy himself the moral standard-bearer for the nation. Hunsecker has long since let this power go to his head.

Burt Lancaster is ugly and despicable in this role. His weathered face, Donald Trump hair, and heavy spectacles make him into an eyesore, and his behavior takes care of the rest. Why is this man who has such power and authority at his fingertips so obsessed with his kid sister? Why is he so dependent on her companionship? His incestuous preoccupation with her left me feeling dirty, slimy…the man won’t let up!

As I said, I spent most of this film rooting for Falco, whose charm at least makes him seem like a better alternative to Hunsecker. But at a certain point, I started wondering—why am I watching these characters? Why do I care about the dirty deeds and disputes of two people as utterly despicable as Falco and Hunsecker, when I fancy myself a decent human being? And why can’t I stop caring about them?

It’s sleight of hand. Behind the story of Falco and Hunsecker is the tragedy of Steve Dallas and Susan Hunsecker, two lovers who want nothing more than to have a life together. Susan is a sweet girl whose time with her brother has caused her to grow wise beyond her years; she can smell Falco’s sleaze from a mile away. Dallas is a good man and a virtuoso guitarist; in Falco’s words, he has ‘integrity—acute, like indigestion.’ Mackendrick hides them in plain sight; not more than fifteen minutes of screen time can be devoted to these two. But when they are on screen together, the violins swell with sadness because love as pure as theirs can’t possibly survive in a city as corrupt as this one.

Hunsecker’s appetite for corruption is insatiable. No matter how many opinions he sways with his column and how many senators he keeps in his pocket, he won’t be satisfied until he has his innocent sister too. His twisted notion of morality is a mirror for the corruption of crooked politicians and police all over this country, and the hypocrisy of those who claim to have the common people’s interests at heart while selling them out for the next dollar. SSOS could just as easily take place today, which makes me very afraid.

Take a look at the news over the last couple years. We’re in the midst of a never-ending ‘War on Terror’ that has no enemy other than basic human rights. We continue to mine every ounce of expendable energy from the crust of this planet despite daily reminders that it’s ravaging our environment and our grandchildren’s ability to survive. Our society is still rampantly racist and classist, and we’ve sold out our political system, our healthcare system, and soon the internet just so corporations can make themselves even richer than they already are. J.J. Hunsecker isn’t so filthy after all; he’s a shining example of success in this brave new world I find myself in. Dallas and Susan don’t stand a fucking chance.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is the blackest film noir I’ve seen, and it doesn’t even have a gun.

P.S. If you’re wondering what I meant by ‘selling out the internet,’ read this and this…and then do something about it!

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE review: Vampire romance

Sony Pictures Classics

Wow, it’s been a looong school year. I’ve had many hours of clinical training this past year, and I feel like I’m really growing as a therapist and a person. But I’ve missed movies! I haven’t been able to watch nearly as many as I’d like. I’ve been on a big Netflix documentary kick (look out for my upcoming post on THE ACT OF KILLING), but I’ve barely made it to the theater this year, so ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE was a real treat. I hope to produce a lot more content this summer!

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a vampire film. But it’s really a Jim Jarmusch film. Vampire films are popular now and there are certain tropes and expectations they bring along with them. But because OLLA is a Jarmusch film, whatever vampirey-ness it has is outweighed by its Jarmusch-ness. I’ve been trying to explain this to people over the past couple weeks as I’ve been waiting to see this film. ‘I don’t want to see another vampire movie,’ they say. ‘But you see, it’s not another vampire movie.’

In fact, the word ‘vampire’ is never spoken in the entire film. OLLA is about Adam and Eve, two people who love each other and have a lot of baggage, by virtue of the fact that they’ve both been alive for millennia. Adam hides out in Detroit, producing moody electric rock music and communicating with the outside world through a human proxy named Ian, while Eve roosts in Tangier, Morocco with her friend and mentor, fellow vampire Marlowe. That’s Christopher Marlowe, the poet, and he did write the Shakespeare plays in the world of this film. (Click through if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Adam has a tendency towards depression, and when Eve sees that he’s pretty down in the dumps, she picks up and visits him in Detroit. A while later, Eve’s sister Ava joins them. Ava is the unstable, fun-loving type. She wants her good time and she’s going to have it, no matter how much destruction she leaves in her wake.

The cliché about Jim Jarmusch’s films is that they are about the journey, not the destination. Watching this film was like taking a journey with its two main characters. It is equal parts funny, wistful, sad, tragic, and heartwarming. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston bring their characters to life magnificently, and they get brilliant material to work with. Jarmusch clearly thought a lot about how it would affect two sentient beings to be alive and with each other for so long.

I call Adam and Eve ‘people’ because they are utterly human. I laughed at their jokes, empathized with their sadness, felt their frustrations, and longed with them for their happier days. Never mind that they have fangs, drink blood to survive, and only go out at night. Never mind that they refer to us warm-bloods as ‘zombies.’ Their passion for music is as human as their disaffectedness with the state of the world and their romantic hipster love for each other. They just happen to have lived a lot longer than the rest of us.

OLLA is a bit of a departure for Jarmusch, but I think it reflects tremendous growth on his part. The film is visually stunning and colorful. Much of it takes place in Adam’s house, the set for which is impeccably designed. Standout elements include the perfectly ordered disarray of his musical instruments and recording equipment, and his wall of portraits of ‘heroes,’ including Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and of course Marlowe.

The rest of the film’s nighttime scenes revolve around dilapidated Detroit and colorful Tangier, and they are all beautiful to look at. I’m amazed at how interesting they made the abandoned cityscapes of Detroit feel. Yorick Le Saux is not Jarmusch’s usual cinematographer, but they have wonderful chemistry together in this film. The visual richness of THE LIMITS OF CONTROL was a step in this direction; that film takes a vibrant tour of Europe filled with interestingly and somewhat outlandishly dressed characters.

Tonally, OLLA is closer to BROKEN FLOWERS. Like that film, OLLA uses humor and bittersweet nostalgia to expose the poignancy of human nature. Don Johnston, the lead character of BROKEN FLOWERS (Jarmusch chooses his characters’ names symbolically, see?), was burned out from love, but Adam and Eve seem to love each other as much as ever. They take genuine pleasure in each other’s company, and when they are asleep together they hold each other with tenderness and vulnerability.

They only have trouble loving themselves, particularly Adam. He moves about in discontent, like he’s constantly at the end of a very long day. His only pleasures are Eve and his instruments. I imagine that when you’ve lived as long as they have and had as many experiences, the hardest thing in the world to see might be your own face in the mirror. You can move to every country on the planet, be a celebrity or a hermit, have countless lovers and friends, and learn everything there is to know, but you will never stop being yourself.

The strange thing about OLLA is that it sort of made me envy its central characters. Even though they carry the accumulated sadness of thousands of years’ living, they manage to love each other through it all. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk in their shoes—of course, who can? They are supernatural beings, and actually just figments of another person’s imagination. But their love is heartwarming all the same. (This blog really brings out my romantic side!)

That’s what really makes this a departure and a turning point for Jarmusch. His films have always pushed the boundaries of the medium, but his writing has reached a new level of maturity in this past decade. Whereas his older works STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, and DEAD MAN were masterpieces of humor, style, and technique, BROKEN FLOWERS and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE manage to shine a revealing light on human emotions. The really remarkable thing about OLLA is that, for all the sadness and frustration that permeate its characters’ lives, there is actually something hopeful about their love for each other, which left me with a smile as I walked out of the theater.

P.S. It seems Jarmusch got across what he wanted to with this film! A lot of complementary reviews have praised the same qualities: the film’s humanness and heartfelt romance, its avoidance of vampire genre tropes, and its visual flair. Here’s The Dissolve and The Matinee.

Only God Forgives

 

Radius

ONLY GOD FORGIVES is bizarre. It’s the story of an American drug dealer in Bangkok, whose cruel mother comes to help him find the men who killed his brother. Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, is impenetrable. He seems to live in a trance and wears a constant expression of sadness. Director Nicholas Winding Refn (BRONSON, DRIVE) blends Julian’s dream sequences with reality, and saturates the film with vivid colors and overwhelming sound. This creates a sort of ‘heightened reality,’ as he describes it. The result is profoundly disorienting.

Julian’s brother Billy was killed by a man named Choi, who had pushed his own daughter into prostitution. Billy hired his daughter, then beat her to death. Choi was allowed vengeance by Lt. Chang, who acts as an arbiter of justice throughout the film (the credits also refer to him as the Angel of Vengeance). Julian finds Choi, but when he hears about Choi’s daughter’s death, he lets the man go. This becomes a source of tension between him and his mother Crystal when she arrives in Bangkok.

Their relationship is troubled, to say the least. She is a harsh and manipulative woman who keeps her son on a tight leash. Refn bring us into Julian’s emotional world by making the film deliberately bewildering: the soundtrack’s booming bass is loud and rumbling (my upstairs neighbor had to ask me to turn it down) and vividly colored lighting creates a hyper-stylized look. The mood is somber and anxious. Characters move slowly and don’t talk much. Julian and Billy stare into space with looks of remorse. It’s like they are living in a world without joy.

As the camera pans steadily across the scenery or remains deathly still, every scene starts to feel like a funeral dirge. Refn’s jarring cuts overwhelmed me: in one moment, Julian and Billy are speaking somberly, their faces hidden in shadow, and in the next they stand by the brightly lit ring of Julian’s muay thai club surrounded by the uproar of a fight.

I felt like I was Julian as I watched. The dark tone and expressive imagery made me feel depressed, and its jarring noise and transitions made it hard for me to relax. As the story unfolded, I learned why Julian lives in this state fraught with overwhelming emotions, loneliness, and anxiety: he lives in fear of his mother, who is manipulative, withholding, and coldhearted. Her first line towards Julian in the film is, ‘Did you get the guy that did it?’ There is something sexually suggestive about the way she looks up at him that made me feel confused and uncomfortable. Julian tries to tell her why he let Choi go and she flies into a rage, moving from loving to spiteful in a split second. Julian looks stoic, but he is clearly cowering on the inside. Or maybe that’s just how I felt.

He carries around a great deal of guilt and anger. Despite the line of work he has found himself in, Julian is a sensitive and troubled soul. He wants his mother’s affection, which she uses to manipulate him at every turn. At a dinner together, Crystal is still angry about Julian’s decision not to kill Choi, so she uses his relationship with Billy to make him feel impotent. After comparing the sizes of their penises she states, ‘Billy was everything Julian wanted to be. Is that not true? Because let me tell you, if the tables were turned, your brother would have found your killer and brought me his head on a fucking platter!’

It is relentless and disgusting, and it made me feel sad and angry. Julian wears his sadness like a badge, but he can’t acknowledge how angry he feels at his mother. His sliver of hope that Crystal will eventually come around and act like a mother, which she also uses to manipulate him over the course of the film, is too precious for him to jeopardize through anger. Instead, he assaults strangers over imagined insults because so much rage boils inside him.

I watched the film twice, and my impressions were dramatically different. The first viewing captivated me. Refn’s use of expressive imagery and sound to generate intense emotional experiences reminded me of greats like EYES WIDE SHUT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, though this isn’t nearly as good. The themes of parenting, longing, and betrayal lingered in my mind after I watched. I couldn’t see how all the pieces fit together, but that’s not the point. This film is about feeling.

When I watched it a second time, I tried to analyze the film with more depth. I looked for all the hints and clues that weave into Julian’s consciousness as depicted on screen. This made for a frustrating experience, because the film’s overwhelming sounds and imagery distracted me from these hints instead of having a powerful emotional impact on me. Watching a film like MULHOLLAND DRIVE multiple times is rewarding because Lynch adds so many wonderful details and mysteries that keep the experience new. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is only meant for one viewing; the intense violence and sadness shouldn’t be experienced twice.

The hardest piece to understand is Chang, who goes around meting out justice with his machete. In one scene, Julian dreams (imagines? fantasizes?) that Chang amputates his hand. Perhaps Chang represents the father figure responsible for punishment or justice. Early in the film we see Chang with his daughter, an innocent among violent people. This theme runs heavy throughout the film; when Chang goes looking for an assassin who plotted against him, Chang finds the man feeding his crippled son. He pleads, ‘I’m not afraid to face the consequences. I’m just asking you to spare my son.’

Refn seems to be asking whether these children will be poisoned by their parents’ violent behavior the way Julian was. Maybe that makes Chang a redeeming father, who amputates Julian’s hand as punishment for his crimes (watch the film to understand what I’m referring to here). But Chang is not satisfied if he isn’t in control. Whenever something challenges his moral hold on the Bangkok underworld, he becomes unsettled and cannot rest. This is depicted symbolically in scenes of Chang singing karaoke.

I don’t know what to make of it. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a weird film. It’s about parenting, guilt, loss, and sadness. It’s full of graphic violence and overwhelming imagery. Refn’s expressionistic style gives some meaning to this ethereal narrative, which might otherwise be incomprehensible. It’s no masterpiece on the level of DRIVE, but it will reward open-minded viewers.