Only God Forgives

Posted on December 12th, 2013 in film and tv

Nicloas Winding Refn sure is an interesting director, and one I very much admire.  He really does like to teeter on the knife edge between profundity and pretentiousness, though.  Valhalla Rising, in spite of the never-knowingly-overchiselled Mads Mikkelsen, I found a frustrating mixture of fascinating and wilfully obscure to the point of utter tedium.  But crazy and colourful Bronson I liked a lot, and Drive I liked even more.  Ryan Gosling’s moody silences and lingering glances seemed full of depth in that film, the electro-score and neon darkness totally fitting, the supporting characters vivid and surprising, the action explosive and shocking.

You’ve got to admire that after being within a hair of commercial Hollywood glory with Drive, Refn has made a staunchly art house and uncommercial film with this surreal gangster revenge piece in moody, evil Bangkok.  Sadly, that was pretty much all I did admire about it.  In a way Only God Forgives is very much like Drive, but with the pretentiousiser dialled all the way up to BORING.  Lots of moody neon and swelling electro again, but now the script is so pared back as to be virtually non-existent.  Gosling’s silences are longer than ever, but seem to betoken emptiness rather than depth, and oddly juxtaposed with a strangely blaring and brassy performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as his mother.  The violence is very ultra.  Much splatter!  Such super schlock!  But at the moments that were meant to be most shocking I actually just felt like laughing.  The film is short, but bloody hell it doesn’t feel short.  Blatant symbolism abounds, but to what end I’m really not sure.  Ryan Gosling sits in a bar, staring at his hands.  The Angel of Death sings bad Karaoke under red paper lanterns.  Ryan Gosling stands in a foyer, staring at his hands.  Someone gets their arm chopped off with a gout of splurge.  The camera tracks, tracks, tracks endlessly back down a David Lynch style moody corridor for the seventh time.  Back, and back, and back it tracks, like they accidentally left the brake off, and you just can’t believe the editor is going to let that shot of Ryan Gosling staring at his hands go on any longer.

Then it does.

Maybe it all went over my head.  Maybe I’m getting old.

Sometimes I just like it when the characters speak, you know?

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  1. Love your reviews, sir.

  2. Joe, this movie left me perplexed until Alejandro Jodorowsky’s name came up at the end. If you’re not familiar with him, I highly recommend checking out a few minutes of his films to, at least, get a feeling for what Refn was attempting. Not that I LIKE OGF now, but I don’t feel as lost wondering how Refn went from Drive to that.

  3. In the bar above my browser for this page it says: ‘Only God Forgives Joe Abercrombie’.

    I bet he wouldn’t ;-)

  4. Personaly I thought it was a masterpiece, I spend 4 months a year in Thailand and thought it captured the darker side of Bangkok life very well

  5. I liked the moodiness of the film, but it made me feel like I didn’t “get it”. Now I realize that it just wasn’t very good!

  6. I completely agree with this review. I was pretty disappointed by the film after enjoying Drive so much. It had moments that were intriguing and interesting, but after forty-five minutes, it still hadn’t gone anywhere.

  7. Logan,
    For me it didn’t feel that big a leap from Drive to this, because in a way it took the things that were great about Drive and dialled them up to the point that they were … not great. It’s even less surprising if you’ve seen Valhalla Rising, which had a lot of the same features of silent perfect killer with vast weight of baffling symbolism. Only God Forgives seems in a way a pretty natural development for Refn, just in a direction that really didn’t appeal to me.

    JonnyMoz,
    You’re certainly not alone. Plenty of people seem to love it. Makes me wish I had…

  8. I inferred that all the hands staring was because Julian had strangled his father before fleeing to Bangkok. In the end, it gets a little abstract but Chang cuts his hands off as his punishment.

    Chang as a God figure was really interesting to me and probably the main reason I liked the movie. These American gangsters promising at every turn to teach him a lesson for killing the evil fucking Brother, and yet Chang wins.

    Having liked Only God Forgives, I definitely understand the problem with the moody tracking shots. The first 5 minutes or so it seemed really jarring and forced. I got used to it, but I remember thinking to myself that I hoped it were more like Bronson and less like Valhalla Rising.

  9. I think it’s more about him trying to direct a movie around the only role we’ve seen Gosling play so far in Hollywood. He hasn’t evolved much as an actor, which isn’t his fault as he’s only being casted for these kinds of roles.

  10. Good, now i don’t have to try and finish watching it. It felt more like punishment than entertainment.

  11. Tony,
    I’d say Drive was more like Refn trying to construct a film around Gosling – at least there was a framework of dialogue and other characters to work with. Only God Forgives felt like Gosling trying to fit into the film Refn wanted to make, and seeming totally lost there. I like Gosling in general, I don’t know that every actor needs to ‘evolve’ per se. Or every ‘star’ at any rate. Clint Eastwood more or less did the same thing whenever he appeared, and I got no complaints…

  12. It reminded me a lot of Old Boy and a bit of Takashi Miike’s art house fare.

    As with most entertainment, your expectation going into it determines the amount of enjoyment you will derive. Seeing the first few minutes, realizing it was Art House(tm), made me expect less and to stop struggling against the direction it was taking.

    In the end, I really wish it had just been about the Angel of Death instead.

  13. I adored it in honesty, and when watching and re-watching i believe you get more and more from it. I think Gosling’s blankness was an attribute of his character. I dont think there was ever ment to be a real soul there, like there was in his charatcer in Drive. I think you were meant to see him as a drone of sorts.

    I did think that the film was a little self-indulged on Refn’s behalf, but i admire that about him, as you say.

    Will be interesting to see what his new project delivers. His description of it being a ‘space opera’ certainly excites!

  14. Loved Valhalla Rising but this struck me as rather harrowing, metaphorical(physical? Meta something anyway.) journey up his own arse,and made about as much sense as Jim Davidson turning up in a Peter Greenaway movie.

  15. Joe, I suspect OGF works best in a cinema. That’s where I saw it. It’s disturbing, gripping, and it really stayed with me.

    Great film.

  16. Valhalla Rising was great. Driver was a also superb, but Only god Forgives left me irritated. Cant even say why but it seemed very forced into some kind of Lynch like feeling.

    Maybe I had to high expectations.

  17. Somehow I don’t think Gosling is that good of an actor. I like the pusher triology by Refn the most. Set in Copenhagen with drug dealers, stress and broken persons. I feel like each movie is very intense in it own way and doesnt give simple answers as some movies seem like to do..

  18. Valhalla Rising was terrible, I nearly didn’t watch Drive because of how bad that movie was. Luckily I did watch Drive and it was substantially better.

  19. I loved Bronson and Drive. Valhalla Rising was just really fucking weird, but the action was awesome. I watched Only God Forgives figuring it would almost be a spiritual successor to Drive. I liked some aspects of it, but overall there was a lot of boredom. What made Drive so good was how the movie sort of chugged along at an almost whimsical pace and then shit went from 0 to 60 instantly. I don’t think Only God Forgives is a horrible movie, but I didn’t get into it.

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