“Only God Forgives” is a slow and at times, monotonous look at largely unlikable characters doing largely unlikable things to each other. The brutality is at times off the charts and most of the performances are subdued and quiet.
So why can’t I shake the feeling that I really liked it?
I’ve been excited about this film for months now, “Drive” is near the top of my shortlist of favorite movies and when I heard that director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling were going to be working together again, I was excited. When I heard that it was going to take place in Thailand and center around Gosling in a martial arts fight for honor and that Gosling himself described the script as “the strangest thing he’s ever read,” my excitement went off the charts.
Before I got to see it, I heard all of the negativity coming out of its’ Cannes Festival debut, where audiences booed and walked out early, aghast at the carnage they were relentlessly hit with for 90 straight minutes.
The film follows Gosling’s Julian, an American in Thailand running a boxing league that doubles as his cover for drug smuggling. When his brother murders a 16 year old prostitute, his overbearing mother Krystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to collect his body and to push Julian towards revenge on all parties responsible, including a sword-wielding cop with his own idea of justice named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who may or may not be The Angel of Vengeance.
Seeing it for myself, I can see where people can be put off by the film, but by no means should you skip it if you’re interested in the slightest about it.
One of the biggest complaints surrounding “Drive” was that it was slow-paced and the lack of dialogue made it a little boring. If you saw “Drive” and felt that way, then skip “Only God Forgives” at all costs. It moves slower than “Drive” and the frenetic energy in that film has been replaced with brooding and dark introspection. The violence that punctuated “Drive” is at the forefront here; characters are stabbed, cut, shot, beaten, hit with pans of hot oil and mutilated at a fairly consistent pace. But the fact that the scenes between the acts of violence feature very little talking and more than a few “art house” shots, it’s easy for critics to dismiss the film as an attempt at pure shock value or as a piece of pulp filth.
I’ve already heard quite a few different takes on what the film and what all the heavy symbolism throughout could mean and at this point, a second viewing is inevitable to start trying to pick up things I may have missed and for those that see it and decide to re-watch, they will certainly have plenty to see with each multiple viewing. In fact, I’ve found that the more I think about the different potential meanings, I find myself liking the film more and more.
The one thing I couldn’t help but take away from the film is that it seems very much like a direct response to the success and praise of “Drive.” Once it was released, Refn suddenly found himself being praised from almost every angle by critics, most of which had spent the majority of their time detracting Refn’s other films. With “Drive” Refn rejuvenated heist thriller and showed us another side of everyone’s favorite sensitive yet manly actor; Ryan Gosling. I’m sure the critics wanted to like “Only God Forgives,” the buzz and anticipation around their second collaboration was sky high and it seemed like everyone was awaiting that now infamous first Cannes’ screening.
The encouraging thing to take from all this is how unfazed Refn and co. have been about the film’s negative reception. Refn has maintained that he makes movies of what he wants to see and has no interest in what critics say, be it positive or negative. Gosling compared it to a drug trip.
“The film is kind of like a drug, you either have a good trip or a bad trip.- Ryan Gosling.”
And that’s the thing, it’s not a bad film. It’s beautiful from a cinematography standpoint, each scene drips of neon red and black, taking place almost completely at night. Composer Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) is back with another collection of dark tones cut with synths and hints of both traditional Thai music as well as Western themes.
“Only God Forgives” is altogether a different type of animal, from a technical aspect it’s a spectacle to behold and as unique looking a film as you’ll see all year. Refn finds beauty in almost every shot, even as his characters are putting themselves or others through torture; an attempted hit on a character that involves an entire restaurant being shot up and the hand to hand fight between Chang and Julian unfold with an unflinching look at the violence happening, but also in a way that’s almost poetic. Story wise, it’s a difficult film to get through and there are tons of hidden meanings and symbols scattered throughout if you dare seek them out.
Much like “Drive,” dealing with the consequences for actions people take seems to be at the forefront of “Only God Forgives,” however, the actions in “Only God Forgives” are not as clear and come from characters with very few redeeming qualities, even Chang, who seems to be the most concerned with justice, and his decisions seem hard to justify, but then again, Nicolas Winding Refn is not your conventional filmmaker and while “Only God Forgives” can be described as many things, one thing it never is, is conventional.