The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Yorgos Lanthimos is one of modern cinema’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. From his raw, subversive Greek films, Kinetta (2005), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) to his English-language debut The Lobster (2015) he’s shown a propensity for creating strange and disturbing alternate worlds within a vacuum. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of how his often-bizarre sensibilities are expressed cinematically is how he’s been able to translate the qualities that make the earlier films so unique into his two English language films without missing a beat. The work of so many foreign film directors becomes inevitably diluted and tainted once they venture outside their homelands but Lanthimos has remained resolutely aligned to a boldness of vision that he retains totally creative control over.

His new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) begins with a curious meeting between cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and a young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), with whom he’s becomes friends though we’re not immediately sure of the context of their relationship. Steven lies about who Martin is to a colleague and doesn’t disclose their meetings to wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Over time it becomes clear that Martin has some sort of hold over Steven and when their relationship doesn’t follow a route set out by the younger man, Steven’s life begins to fall apart, firstly with medical issues relating to his son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and later daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy).

There’s a wonderfully oblique element to Lanthimos and regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s narrative as it veers between mounting psychological horror and bursts of black humour that often border on the absurd. It’s this strange tonal juxtaposition that is so unique to Lanthimos and his magnificently skewered perception of the world. The horror is supplied by the unnerving sense of how Martin is able to ingratiate himself into the lives of Steven’s family and begin to exert a malevolent, almost supernatural will on events. Another arresting force is Lanthimos’s extraordinarily overt use of classical source music including, most prominently, ‘De Profundis’ by Janne Rattya which probes like a needle under a fingernail, reinforcing a premonition of horror to come through sound alone.

Lanthimos has a unique way of eliciting very specific performances from his actors in the way they complement the bleakness of his vision and enhance the peculiarities of his insulated worlds. Through his experience as lead actor in The Lobster, Colin Farrell has well and truly fallen into step with his director’s working methods and his performance as the increasingly frustrated Steven is a marvel of restraint, deadpanning and internalisation which rarely takes form in overt emotional outbursts. Though when it does, the results are memorable. Kidman is perhaps even better; her portrayal of Anna is one of immaculate control with her icy surface demeanour occasionally pierced by an emotional turmoil that seeps in at the edges. Still, Anna rarely allows any damage or distress to show other than in her remarkably expressive eyes.

So many of Lanthimos’s creative choices are strikingly memorable from the intriguing way he and regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis choose to shoot his characters, even in mundane scenarios such as doctors walking down hospital corridors, viewed either from forward or behind. Many of the distorting lenses or odd angles add to the effect of dislocation and peculiarity in what is a compelling but eerily emotionless version of the world. The resolution of events may be somewhat underwhelming, with a faint air of contrivance about it. Somehow, we’re bracing ourselves all along for something a little more extraordinary to unfold. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a masterfully executed provocation and excellent follow up to The Lobster. Regardless of the message it conveys or fails to convey through its tumbling, eerily emotionless revolutions, the film only cements Lathimos’s reputation as an artist with a truly unique perspective and one of world cinema’s most original voices.

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Jigsaw

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The umpteenth instalment of any franchise will inevitably be bled of anything approximating cinematic invention and for Saw, like its never-say-die brethren such as the Amityville and Paranormal Activity film cycles, the well has mostly run dry. Jigsaw (2017) arrives, then, after a seven-year hiatus in the series initially conceived by those two talented Melbourne film students James Wan and Leigh Whannell, acting again as executive producers. The local flavour is maintained however with Michael and Peter Spierig taking over directorial duties. The brothers have been genre favourites for a while and their body of work has improved with each film. Their low-budget debut Undead (2003) was somewhat of a dud but stylish vampire flick Daybreakers (2009) was a vast improvement, tackling a familiar sub-genre from a fresh angle. Then came their best work to date, sublime time-travel drama Predestination (2014), which featured a thrilling, mind-bending plot and great work from Ethan Hawke and, especially, the astonishing Sarah Snook in dual roles.

Roped into helming Jigsaw before their much anticipated upcoming period ghost flick Winchester (2018) the brothers have made a competent if utterly extraneous sequel that straddles the borderline between B-grade and B-plus. It’s reasonably compelling, no doubt, jumping back and forth as it does between two interlinked narrative strands. In the first – a scenario harking back to the original – a sinister ‘game’ plays out as a hand-picked few wake tethered to chains in a dark room and with steel bucket helmets attached to their heads. It’s not just a routine ‘night after’ for this specious crew as they soon discover. In the first of a series of ghoulish rounds they’re implored to make a sacrificial blood offering to their captor in order to progress. Inevitably their number dwindles as they lose their helmets, limbs and minds.

As these set-pieces in miniature reach breathless points of suspenseful anticipation, we regularly switch to the ongoing investigation of a lead detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) as he and his mostly clueless cohorts in the department and morgue attempt to uncover the true nature of the ’game’, its location and of course its mastermind. Physical and other clues suggest the return of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) but he died years ago, didn’t he? The screenplay is credited to Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg whose CV’s are littered with ignominious examples of genre hackdom from the last decade. It’s a measure of how desensitised we’ve become to sustained cinematic violence by now that something like Jigsaw seems almost tame by today’s standards, severed limbs, acid-drenched faces and cut-in-half human brains notwithstanding.

The performances are suitably frenzied from the victims-to-be, all unpleasant, thinly sketched puppets with skeletons in their closet, and the Spierig brothers’ direction is very decent if undistinguished with their pacing especially tight. The ‘death-trap’ scenes are naturally pitched at a manic level of petrified confusion with the stock-standard detective bumbling acting as a neat counterpoint. If nothing else, Jigsaw entertains on a crass, primal level by adhering to well-worn genre precepts and expectations of its intended target audience: intense close-ups, creepy-doll menace, feverish but moronic verbal exchanges provoked by each character’s fear of death, the ever-present threat of bloody deliverance and an assaultive use of sound, with Charlie Clouser’s ramped up score (which he must be phoning in by now) working overtime to drag our nerve endings over the coals as we progress deeper and deeper into Jigsaw’s lair. There’s nothing especially brilliant about the final twist but Jigsaw fulfils its brief. No complaints there. Now, is it too much to ask for no more?

Wind River

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Given another shot at the director’s chair after the critical acclaim lavished upon his first two produced screenplays, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), former actor Taylor Sheridan confirms his success has been no fluke. His second turn behind the camera, after obscure 2011 horror film Vile, shows him to be no slouch in terms of handling the demands of his narrative and actors. Wind River (2017) proves to be another impressive screenplay. Set in the blighted snowy expanses of Wyoming, it is, superficially, a murder mystery but as it unravels the strength of characterisation comes to the fore, especially in the form of lead character Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife and Fisheries officer and local tracker who knows the dimensions and layout of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand. Cory is a haunted man however, having being visited by tragedy of the worst sort in the not too distant past. The daughter he shared with estranged Indian partner Wilma (Julia Jones) was taken from him in terrible circumstances.

The discovery of a young Indian girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), on the outskirts of the ‘Wind River’ reservation in the film’s opening sends shockwaves through him though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading external indicators. Cory’s a classic figure of a mythologised West, the impenetrable, strong silent type who observes constantly but speaks only out of necessity. He’s a model of constraint, a man who internalises and compartmentalises his pain and angst to save face and allow him a reluctant reconciliation with the wider world. He is, then, not a naturally compatible partner for the young FBI agent, Jane Bremmer (Elizabeth Olsen), drafted in to oversee the case and make a determination about murder. Together they dig into possible leads, with Jane utilising Cory’s intimate, detailed knowledge of both the environment and the wild assortment of people who call it home at every turn to uncover clues from beneath every overturned rock. What she finds is a world apart from her own big city life, one immersed in a doom-laden fog from which an unpredictable enemy might emerge at any time.

Sheridan’s screenplay includes a couple of fine set-pieces, including an explosive early confrontation with one group of suspects and another suspenseful sequence which involves a trawl through the snow with local enforcement officers and a band of men who they naturally distrust. It’s this latter scene which trips the film into an electrifying and brutal flashback sequence through which all the film’s lingering mysteries are filtered. Despite the mystery taking precedence, Sheridan is able to poignantly and effectively address other issues. On a broader level Wind River provides sobering insights into the poisonous malaise laying over this place like a fresh coating of snow in the form of a senses-dulling inertia and dead-end hard-scrabble lives – mostly Native American – robbed of direction, motivation or even a flicker of comprehension.

It’s this saturating helplessness and the wavering moral boundaries it generates that sit in stark contrast to the intrinsic strength of Cory’s character. Though enigmatic, he’s highly empathetic, a fact which doesn’t discount his flaws. If anything it accentuates his humanity, his integrity, and the depth of his losses, including his daughter and his marriage. But despite everything it’s the innate ability he retains to feel and console the pain of others like his friend, Natalie’s grieving father Martin (the wonderful Gil Birmingham) that we admire.

With Cory, Renner has been given his finest role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) the film that hurtled him into the spotlight and has led, mostly, to high-profile but empty roles in big-budget fare. He’s magnificently understated, bringing an impressive level of stillness and thoughtful consideration to nearly every scene. that might otherwise have seen overblown emotional reactions and chaos as a more appropriate response to the turbulence. Equal credit must be given to Sheridan too, of course, for the exceptional quality of performances he’s extracted from all his cast members, including Olsen as the fish-out-of-water agent who proves she can handle herself despite needing local intelligence to shine an investigative light down some very murky rabbit roles within the reservation.

Though the minimal, eerie textures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score tips over into questionably eccentric deployment on a couple of occasions, there is little else to fault in Wind River. The resolution may deny us a truly visceral sense of vengeance enacted but, on reflection, it’s perfectly weighted and consistent with all that we know of Cory. And then there’s a final scene between Cory and Martin; this too is memorable and a moving encapsulation of the film’s deeper concerns which are as much about the nature of hope and perseverance as about the eternal grip of grief and despair.

Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Arrival

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An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

Nocturnal Animals

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An austere, bleak meditation on revenge and the blurred boundaries where fictional and non-fictional lives intersect, Tom Ford’s long-gestating second feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016) comes with high expectations after the excellent Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009). But the promise created by an interesting premise and a fine cast is gradually eroded as the film’s complexities are revealed to be skin deep, whilst narrative holes flower up like fresh wounds, exposing a paucity of credibility and leading to a wilting anti-climax.

Based on a novel by Austin Wright, Ford’s film quickly establishes the apathy and ennui of gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has emotionally disengaged, not only from her work, but also her relationship to husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Then she receives a manuscript from her novelist ex-partner Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has dedicated his latest work to her and named it ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a term he often used to describe Susan during their time together. The film then effectively transforms to a story within the story as she dives into the book; the disturbing story described within forms the basis of much of the film.

A man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal,) is driving through a rural landscape at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re almost run off the road by a couple of cars. Soon they’re hounded to a stop in the middle of nowhere and being physically and verbally threatened by a group of rednecks led by the recklessly dangerous Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Even worse is to come when Laura and India are abducted before Tony can escape and struggle to freedom where his case, through the course of time, is investigated by cancer-riddled detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

There’s a sense of aloofness established early on that distances us from these people, especially in the present world of Susan, their coldness permeating every verbal and physical inflection. Beyond these glimpses, the world of the novel brings the nightmarish existence of a single man into ever sharper focus as his torment grows exponentially. In some way, is this same striving for recompense also taking shape in the real world, with Edward using the novel as a way to ingratiate his way back into the Susan’s consciousness for some possibly sinister purpose?

The illusion of the fictional story prevents us from emotionally engaging with what we see on screen, as horrible as these events playing out are. The presentation of this story ‘within’ is also highly problematic in the most fundamental way with the ‘investigation’ becoming more ludicrous as it progresses. Unorthodoxy on the behalf of Bobby might be semi-credible but the method he undertakes is difficult to reconcile with any kind of believable notion of the measures and actions a police officer would take to solve a crime of this magnitude. Bearing witness to Bobby’s reluctant participation in Bobby’s displaced vendetta is both uncomfortable and grating for its blatant absurdity

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be a crushing disappointment, squandering talent in every aspect of the production. Composer Abel Korzeniowski, a rising star and shining light of film music in recent years, provides another classy, elegant score. The performances too are uniformly excellent with Gyllenhaal adding to his remarkable recent body of work, with another dark, powerful portrayal of a man driven to extremes. Adams has never given anything less than a great performance and she does her best work here in flashbacks which show the first blossoming of her relationship with Edward before external forces are set in motion, dooming their perfect love. But the drama fizzles out, the final scene a perfect encapsulation of sharply focused expectations tainted by an enveloping absence that pervades both narrative strands.

 

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.