It so happens that this week brings the release of one of the new films I’ve most enjoyed this year, as well as the one that has most infuriated me so far in 2013. Call it the see-saw effect. Cinematic karma. That’s the way it happens sometimes. One of those new films engages so fully with the audience that it’s like watching a live revue, with all the shambolic showboating that implies, while the other is so remote and divorced from its viewers that it exhibits symptoms of the cinematic equivalent of locked-in syndrome.
The film I loved is The Heat, a female buddy/cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The one I detested is Only God Forgives, a sort-of revenge thriller with Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Besides occupying opposite ends of that see-saw, they don’t have much else in common, though they are both sort-of sequels: that is, sequels not in a narrative sense but in a commercial one, capitalising as they do on an earlier collaborative success between filmmaker and performer. Only God Forgives brings Gosling back under the direction of Nicolas Winding Refn, who made Drive. The Heat reunites the director Paul Feig with McCarthy, one of the stars of his hit comedy Bridesmaids (she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the earlier film as an unapologetically ravenous member of a bridal party).
The Heat has no claims on sophistication or originality. It’s a raucous odd couple comedy about a brilliant but prissy single cop (Bullock) and her uncouth, armed-to-the-teeth partner (McCarthy). The jokes are predominantly coarse (sample Bullock line, delivered in the street to passers-by: “That is a misrepresentation of my vagina!”) but with a joyful sense of naughtiness and absurdity. McCarthy and Bullock prove themselves gods of physical comedy. The atmosphere in the cinema throughout the screening I attended was jubilant. I don’t remember a point at which I stopped laughing, though logically there must have been one. It’s a rough and ready movie (not unlike Bridesmaids) but it gets the job done.
Only God Forgives has a self-conscious sixth-form artiness. Where Drive was vacuous with a garish pop-culture “Ping!” to it, the new picture is vacuous and ponderous, heaven help us. It fancies itself a modern-day Hamlet set among US ex-pats in Bangkok. Its anti-hero, Julian (played by Gosling), is an impotent would-be avenger who cannot bring himself to kill his brother’s murderer. (The brother is played by the riveting British actor Tom Burke, who could give Gosling charisma lessons.) Kristin Scott-Thomas pops up to offer some bleach-blonde relief from the visual murk as Gosling’s taunting, incestuously-inclined mother. If we thrill to her appearance it may be because she is one of the few performers here who has been given a tangible character to play; the viewer clings to her scenes as to a rubber ring in a shipwreck. Refn bathes the film in gone-to-seed reds and lurid purples and fills it with prowling David Lynch-esque tracking shots. But this is a long way from the all-encompassing nightmares that Lynch cooks up. We can always sense Refn behind the camera, styling and posing and over-egging. He never commits fully to his own nightmarish vision.
If the film were to be taken seriously, it might feel offensive that the Thai characters are indistinct avatars of revenge or suffering, with Bangkok itself portrayed patronisingly as mythic, exotic and deadly—the sort of representation more suited to a Bond movie. But really no one comes out of this well. Not Thailand. Not the deliberately blank Gosling, whose nerve endings appear to have gone dead, and not in a dynamic Steve McQueen way either. And certainly not Refn, who is too much in love with the visions of Hell he manufactures on screen.
The Heat opens on 31 July, Only God Forgives on 2 August.