Only God Forgives Review

Posted: July 21, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

ONLY-GOD-FORGIVES-Poster2Written by PG Cooper

Back in 2011, one of the biggest surprises of the Cannes Film Festival was when a Hollywood funded crime-thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director award. That film was of course Drive and it spawned a huge fan base. The big surprise of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was when Refn’s follow-up film Only God Forgives was met with boos and has since gone on to be met with extremely negative reviews in spite of a few supporters. Now anyone who knows me or who’s followed the site for a while knows I love Drive, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Only God Forgives in spite of the negative reception. And while the film is not as good as Drive or the other Refn film I’ve seen (Bronson), I’m still impressed with what I see.

The film takes place in Bangkok and follows an emigrant named Julian (Ryan Gosling) who works as a drug dealer with a kickboxing arena as his front. The film’s story is set in motion when Julian’s brother (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute, which leads to his murder by the girl’s father and police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). The way Julian sees it, his brother got his comeuppance, but his crime boss mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) feels differently and comes to Bangkok seeking vengeance.

There’s definitely a plot at the center of Only God Forgives but it isn’t really the focus. Ryan Gosling described the film as being a nightmare and that’s probably the best description. The film moves more based on emotions than logic and seems to exist in a more subconscious level. It feels like a nightmare projected on screen. This is accomplished through the strange narrative structure, bizarre characters, uneasy shot selection, and Cliff Martinez’s haunting score. The technical choices are particularly effective and are the film’s greatest strengths. The colours really stand out and the shot selection feels very careful and deliberate. Martinez’s score is especially awesome, fusing a techno-esque sound with a sense of dread. It might be my favourite score of the year so far. I also admired the editing, which helped keep the film very tense in spite of the unorthodox storytelling.

Like Drive, Ryan Gosling plays a character of few words but with a violent streak, and his work here is even more subtle than his work in Drive. It’s hinted that Julian has been psychologically and physically abused by his mother, and after so many years of being controlled by her, Julian’s demeanor has become complacent. He’s fuelled with conflicting emotions internally but is afraid to express them externally. Naturally, Gosling’s performance is very understated and could easily be dismissed, but I admired what I saw. On the other side of the spectrum is Lt. Chang. Refn has described Chang as seeing himself as God and if so, this is definitely Old Testament God. Chang ruthlessly brings swift and brutal judgement to those he deems guilty without hesitation. He’s a very static character, but Vithaya Pansgringarm definitely has a presence and gives the character a mythic vibe. Stealing the show however is Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s criminal mother. Like he did with Albert Brooks in Drive, Refn has taken an actor known for playing likable and good people and has made a fascinating villain out of them. Thomas is deliciously evil and though she does give an over the top performance, it is entirely appropriate within the film’s twisted world. She’s a blast to watch on screen as the twisted manipulator and her relationship with her sons is interesting.

Unfortunately, despite my praise the film has some flaws. Easily the biggest is the movie’s own pretension. Only God Forgives is one of those “art films”, the kind where every shot is meant to make the audience ask “what it means”. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the film ultimately feels very shallow. The story is a pretty basic revenge tale with little twists. There some smaller things going on with the character which are certainly interesting, but overall nothing we haven’t seen before. I just don’t think the film is as smart as it thinks it is. Of course, one could make the same argument for Drive, but Drive ultimately feels like a deeper work and the more “artsy” elements more subdued to support the story, not the other way around.

And yet, in spite of its pretension, I still liked Only God Forgives a lot. It’s a unique film with excellent technical merits and has a lot of great scenes. I can’t help but admire Refn for opting to make a film as weird and experimental as this instead of a soulless Hollywood film (which I’m sure he was offered). Is the film a total success? No. Is it pretentious as hell? Definitely. But the film is also entertaining, provocative, challenging, and often mesmerizing, and that’s definitely something to value. I understand completely why this film has inspired such hostile reactions, but I admire what Refn and company have done.

B+

Comments
  1. le0pard13 says:

    Looking forward to this. Fine review, Daniel.

  2. You were much kinder to this film than I was in my portion of our review. This film looked amazing sort of like a bad acid trip or being high on cold medication when you were a kid.

    Not too violent for my tastes but what I can’t forgive is it being so dull. That was a long 89 minutes. Do you think Refn is rebelling against all the praise he got for Drive? I have seen Bronson, all 3 Pusher films, Drive and Valhalla Rising and this film is my least favorite. While it is not as terrible as it is being made out to be, I certainly would not be recommending it to non-cinephiles.

    • GaryLee828 says:

      Every “dull” moment serves a purpose; this film is full of symbolism and metaphors. The slow motion in so many scenes is supposed to convey to the audience Julians’ POV of his life. I think a lot of people don’t like the film b/c they misinterpret it; which of course is understandable b/c this is one that can definitely come across confusing. But once you understand the meaning and what the director was going for you start to see it in a different light.

      • I don’t know Gary, Lynch films are filled with symbolism and metaphor but they don’t take a trip to dullsville. While this film had a lot of the fevered dream/acid trip look of Lynch I found it lacking in vigor.

        I have watched Drive, the Pusher Trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising and enjoyed them all. I would not say I disliked this film but I certainly did not love it.

      • GaryLee828 says:

        I understand what you’re saying, but did you get the symbolism in OGF? I didn’t get most of it at first until I read about it, and learned some things the director was going for. Most of the slow motion scenes that felt dull were mostly scenes seen through Julian’s POV and how he felt, which was depressed, and conflicted, so the slow motion made sense as Julian basically felt like his life was dragging, etc.

      • Gary to be honest I have not read much about the film, as I just wrote my portion of the review last night after watching the film on Friday evening. I try not to read too much about a film until I watch and review it. I do however, look forward to reading more about the film and checking out other peoples reaction to it.

      • GaryLee828 says:

        I just watched it again and have to say I love it now! I’m giving it an 8 of 10 opposed to 6 of 10; if you read up on it and get some more insight on what Winding-Refn was aiming for I really think you’ll appreciate it a lot more.

        Also, and not sure if this was an issue for others as it was with me at times, but if you rent it turn on the closed captions so you can read the dialogue; the dialogue is so quiet in a lot of this its hard to hear and understand what’s going on, and when we don’t understand what’s going on and everyone’s motive, etc. then we become lost, and when we become lost we can sometimes hate a film that would otherwise be great if we followed it more accurately; this has happened to me before, as I am sure it has with others. Just to be safe, I always turn on subtitles or captions anytime I rent online or watch a DVD.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      Certainly understandable. Of the three Refn films I’ve seen it’s definitely the weakest, but I still enjoy it for what it is.

  3. reel411 says:

    Drive was definitely a deeper, more emotional film. this is a hollow mess.

  4. Seems to curious a film to pass up. Nice review

  5. GaryLee828 says:

    I agree with pretty much everything in your review here – except the part about the score. I thought the score sucked and was totally disappointing. It’s way too bare. I did like some of the drum arrangements here-and-there but it needed to have another interesting track on top of it, but didn’t. The Synthesizer was repetitive and never strayed from the same couple notes over and over – and the pipe organ was over-the-top to the point it became obnoxious.

    So you think this may be the best score of the year? Did you listen to Hans Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” score? Also, did you hear the “Bullet Cut” track from the “Trance” score? The “Now You See Me” score was good. Skrillex produced some nice tracks like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and “Ride Home” for the “Spring Breakers” score, as well.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      I think it’s among the best scores of the year, I can’t really commit to which is best. I haven’t seen Trance or Now You See Me yet so I haven’t heard their scores. Man of Steel and Spring Breakers are also among my favourite scores of the year.

      • GaryLee828 says:

        Oh ok, cool. Youtube “Bullet Cut” from the “Trance” score and prepare to be amazed. :)

        I just watched “Only God Forgives” again and the score is sounding better to me now. It’s not nearly as strong as I was hoping, but the depressing sound fits in with Julian’s mindset, and makes sense.

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