#26: let’s rant about crappy movies: the Only God Forgives edition

Many keyboards have been wounded discussing Hollywood and its apparent desire to remake / redo / sequelise and prequelise pretty much anything and everything, leading to a derth in originality and quality. What this ignores, however, is that Hollywood [for the most part] makes their decisions based upon optimal return-on-investment factors. They keep releasing Fast and Furious movies because people keep paying to watch them. They aren’t releasing your brother-in-law’s ethereal portrait of the human condition which is, of course, super brilliant and deep, because people are not going to pay to watch it. There are times when such R-O-I decisions backfire–The Lone Ranger, say–and people take particular glee in seeing such movies fail, but, in truth, the glee derives from the cemented notion that most of these movies actually succeed. Hollywood, the bully, wins more than it loses.

The fallacy of the serious-minded-cinema-viewer is the assumption that Hollywood, the behemoth, wants to produce both critically and financially successful movies; Hollywood wants to make money, quality be damned. It’s the same reason we no longer just have the ‘summer blockbuster;’ all major movies are now pushed like blockbusters because blockbusters have the greatest chance to draw in consumers. Movie consumption has little to do, then, with your serious-mindedness, and has mostly to do with what will make you remove your credit card from your wallet and hand it to the person in the ticket booth. And, for most of America, that means Vin Diesel in fast cars and superheroes causing trillions of dollars in property damage.

I don’t know what makes a good movie; I think, in general, that is really the blame for all of this. I don’t think Fast and Furious movies are worth watching, but I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie. What does that mean? I think it means I have a particular bias when it comes to watching awful films. Horror, yes. Fast cars, no. But, what does it mean when people tell you the Fast and Furious series is good, that they find the movies compelling, entertaining, and–aghast–quality filmmaking? What do you say if a person were to claim the series contained his favourite movies of all time? Do you direct him to Gone in 60 Seconds and see if this cures him, or do you just nod and wonder how many times he has been hit in the head? And what do you say when this person asks you to tell him why the movies aren’t good. There’s the standard tropes: lack of originality, the ridiculous plots, the over-the-top emphasis on being a rebel = being right, etc., etc., etc., but when you break down your own favourite movies, how many of them fall into the same tropes, but in a way you feel confident in defending? I love horror movies because of the inherent simplicity in most of them, an almost calming certainty to how each will play out–sins committed, deaths to follow, escape for our main protagonist(s), possible-sequel-ending. They are a drumbeat to which I can detach myself from my ‘real’ life and allow to comfort me in its predictability. Everything in that list of certainties exists in the Fast and Furious series. There are also tons of horror movies that I can’t stand, mostly ones involving Rob Zombie, not because the drumbeat disappears, but because I don’t find them entertaining. So why would I give room for horror movies to fail that I will not to some other dreck?

The answer is simple: being entertained = a good movie. Now, we may enact some critical faculties, announce that a movie we liked isn’t actually ‘good,’ in the critical sense, but, in the end, the critical sense means absolutely nothing when it comes to entertainment. We, of course, want it to because otherwise what’s the point of having an opinion, but at its most base, entertained and good are the exact same thing. If you have enjoyed watching a movie, it means it was good. The critical assessment only exists later, once you have looked back on it, compared it to the canon, if you will. Did the entertainment also consist of enlightenment, did it force you to question the world in some way, did its entertainment reach a higher level beyond just enjoyment. But none of that actually matters when you are actively watching a movie.

That being said, Only God Forgives is a horrendous movie. I haven’t looked at any actual reviews of it, but I’m guessing its defenders will claim its deliberate pace showcases a deep, underlying message that cannot be articulated, or that its over-emphasis on hands has symbolic meaning that coincides with the slow movements of everyone involved, that somehow that hands are ‘hands of time’ ready to be severed as the world around us continues to move. My guess is there will be defenders of the limited dialogue, that the space between words hangs heavy with meaning, that all of these things coalesce as a buffer to the violence, a way of atmosphere melting into blood and death, a way to describe how, no matter how slow, our ends are always pre-determined: you will die. Your choices will still be the choices you made. Movement forward is inescapable. You cannot hold time. Etc., etc., etc. These people are wrong.

Only God Forgives is painfully slow to behold, its grating color schemes and over-reliance on contrasting noise with lack of movement not just an annoying quirk, but a serious flaw. Ryan Gosling’s brooding seems less psychopath-ready-to-deliver and more mentally retarded. The police detective is a sociopath, plain and simple. He chops of people’s hands, derives pleasure from torturing a suspect, including blinding him with needles then finishing the guy off by sticking another needle into his brain via his ear. All the moodiness of the movie is supposed to give way to great bouts of violent explosion, but, sadly, the violent explosions have not been earned by said moodiness; instead, the violence becomes the only parts of the movie worth watching simply because at least something is happening. The detective literally shuffles everywhere; at one point I thought my Netflix was lagging. This does not scream art to me; it screams I-wish-to-be-art.

The ponderous pace does, however, cover the fact that the movie really could be about 30 minutes long. There is nothing here when it comes to the plot: it’s kind of a revenge movie, but even the revenge is stupid. Gosling’s older brother butchers an underage prostitute. In retaliation he is killed. In retaliation to that, Gosling’s overbearing druglord mother demands revenge. As a viewer, are we supposed to want that? Are we rooting for revenge for a butcher of a young woman? There are inklings that Gosling is some kind of violence-savant, having fled to Taiwan or wherever the hell this movie takes place, after killing his father (at his mother’s request). In turn, his mother tries to weasel out of police punishment in Taiwan by declaring Ryan a psychopath. Revenge begets murder begets turncoat begets death by sword. The world of Only God Forgives is one of contrasts–silence/non-motion v. karaoke/violence, but those contrasts do not create tension, they create boredom. The heavy-handed symbolism reaches its epic point when Gosling comes upon the dead body of his mother, proceeds to stab it a couple of times, then nearly reaches his hand into her stomach. Of course his character wishes to reach into his mother’s uterus; of course he wishes he had never been born; of course his life is one born of violence and silence: he was never meant to exist. His mother had said so earlier, that she had been told to abort but didn’t. We are all but flashes of rage pondering our existence. Or something.

From what I understand, artistic movies ask big questions, but what I also understand is big questions do not have to be boring. Sadly, Only God Forgives fails on all accounts, conflating violence with meaning, silence with depth, and, worst of all, symbolism with emotional development. If I’m going to watch a pschyo shuffle annoyingly slow and torment people, I’d prefer he was wearing a white mask and answered to the name Michael.

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