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My 12 for ’13: Only God Forgives & Neon Nightmares…

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 7…

Few films this year have stayed with me as vividly as the rich and disturbing visual and aural landscape of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a decent into a neon hell, a world half-inhabited by the damned and stalked by demons. With Cliff Martinez’s pounding score still echoing through my head long after my last viewing, Only God Forgives is a haunting piece of cinema, a nightmare captured on digital.

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To be fair, Only God Forgives lends itself to all sorts of criticism. There are lots of gags to be made about the amount of the film’s budget spent on neon, or whether the production tried to recoup costs by paying Ryan Gosling per word. It’s loud, it’s hammy and it’s vulgar. Winding Refn’s film lacks the subtlety or nuance (or even accessibility) that made Drive such a breakout success. Instead, Only God Forgives is something much gaudier and nastier.

It is excessively violent. It is under-written. It wallows in melodrama and excess. This is a film that cuts from brutal violence to long shots of Vithaya Pansringarm singing karaoke. It’s not a film that understands the meaning of restraint, whether in terms of its grotesque on-screen brutality or its own internal consistency. It’s over-blown and over-the-top, with an surreal amount of convolution and mystery heaped on top of what is a fairly straight-forward revenge-or-redemption plot.

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Then again, if you are willing to go with Only God Forgives, it will take you somewhere unique – somewhere striking and alien and horrifying. Julian and his brother Billy live in exile. Bangkok is pretty much the other side of the world, eight thousand miles away from the United States – away from home. Only God Forgives is the story of a man in hell, trapped in an horrifying and nonsensical existence. Violence that begets violence.

(And Refn manages to avoid playing too much to the clichés of eastern exoticism. For all that Bangkok is presented as a hell for Billy and Julian, a place where Billy can wallow in his sins and Julian can suffer in silence, Only God Forgives makes it clear that it is also a home for Chang. While the Bangkok inhabited by Julian is shot in a stylistic and haunting manner, Chang’s home is more naturalistic and grounded. Julian would be in hell wherever he was. It’s just worked out that he ended up in Bangkok.)

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Cliff Martinez’s score combines synthesiser and organ to create the impression we’re watching some strange neon-lit church sermon about sin and absolution.  Only God Forgives is the story of a man with blood on his hands who figures out the only way to properly remove the stain. Gosling’s Julian is a man of even fewer words than the title character from Drive, but there’s a sense we’re watching a pot simmering to boil, ready to explode with the slightest provocation.

Only God Forgives is a dense, provocative and challenging film. It’s packed with vague and ambiguous symbolism on par with the more abstract work of David Lynch. It bristles with the same sort of disconnected brutality that we’d associate with classic David Cronenberg. It’s surreal and absurd and grotesque, all in equal measure, all at the same time.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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