Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars
I’ve enjoyed my fair share of hyper violent movies and art house flicks. I enjoyed Nicolas Winding Refn’s last effort “Drive,” which you could say is a combination of both. So I should have enjoyed this movie. I’m sure everyone else in the sold out theater I was at had some reason as to why they thought they would enjoy this movie as well. Every eye was glued to the screen as the lights dimmed and the film started up. Thirty minutes in, they were rubbing those tired eyes in frustration.
The film has three main characters. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a conflicted American who’s respected by a ring of Hong Kong thugs. Beneath his quiet demeanor is something perverse. He likes to watch, and fantasizes about, women pleasuring themselves. When he needs to climax, he brutalizes a nearby bystander or visualizes something violent. It’s not really comforting to know that part of him realizes he’s a monster. Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is not conflicted. He’s set in his ways and believes in an “eye for an eye” style of justice. He allows citizens to take vengeance. He also manages to squeeze in life lessons through dismemberment. The final piece to this trinity is Julian’s mom, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Her words are like poison and repugnant to the ears. They are a blunt weapon used to sway and control Julian. Everyone’s moral compass is wrapped around Billy, Julian’s hated brother and Crystal’s favorite. Billy has been beaten to death because he savagely raped and killed a teenage prostitute. Crystal blames Billy’s death on Chang and does her best to encourage Julian to carry out her bloodlust.
None of these characters are likeable. None of them have motives behind their unforgiving nature. It’s obvious that Chang and Crystal are allegories because they’re so simplistic in their actions and motions. The only one that has some potential depth is the near mute Julian. Apparently Gosling’s motivation throughout this movie was to nod and occasionally get angry. If there is a story line it seems that it’s expected to be told through the film’s visual style and occasional character facial movements. Almost every scene is drenched in neon red and ocean blue lights. Some scenes are beautiful enough to speak for themselves while others feel incredibly forced. There are long moments of silence, occasionally broken by a fantastic soundtrack. Of course if you’ve seen “Drive”, you know this is one of Refn’s strengths. You will also know he has a taste for blood that, surprisingly, this movie seems short on. In its place Refn tries to make up for it by making us squirm and feel uncomfortable in our seats. You could say that might be one the film’s anti-charms. An elegantly polished movie that’s doing everything in its power to make us hate it.
This film will have an audience, albeit a very small, niche crowd. They will certainly hail it as brilliant and visually stunning. They may even stick their nose up to those who walk out or say it’s terrible. They’ll say those people didn’t understand its true meaning. Even if you peel away the layers and find the meaning, you’ll know that, though the cinematography was right, someone other than Refn needed to pen the story. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t want to be loved or adored. It spits at your kindness and is unapologetic. At least that’s how the man in the seat next to me must have felt. As the credits rolled he said aloud, “Well that was a piece of ****.” He then looked towards his friend next to him and said, “I’m sorry I brought you to this.” Like an untrained puppy, the movie does not expect forgiveness, it’s happy with the mess it made.