Film Review: Only God Forgives
With 2011’s Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn went from being the masterful director behind cult hits like the Pusher trilogy and Bronson to a genuine mainstream presence whose sense of camerawork, lighting and scores made his film possibly the coolest of the decade. When he announced Only God Forgives, a film that reunited him with Drive star Ryan Gosling in which would Gosling would play another similarly silent protagonist, expectations. Then, suddenly, it all went wrong. When it premiered at Cannes, it was greeted with boos, walkouts and savage one star reviews. Can Only God Forgives really be as terrible as they say?
The plot, which is somehow more minimal than Drive, follows drug peddler Julian (Gosling), a criminal running a drugs operation in Bangkok under the guise of a boxing club. When his sadistic brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a 16 year old girl, he is found and murdered by her father at the call of ‘angel of vengeance’ police officer Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who then cuts off the father’s arm. The boys’ mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) arrives in town and orders her son to exact revenge on the officer. Somewhere in the 90 minute run time there’s also room for kinky non-sex, fits of karaoke and extreme ultra-violence…In Drive, Albert Brooks character said “I used to produce movies… Sexy stuff. One critic called them European”. Only God Forgives might just be one of the films he’s talking about.
The main problem with the film is that Refn doesn’t seem to have grasped the reasons why everybody loved Drive. Drive become a surprising mainstream hit because it was incredibly cool, had a charming yet intense performance from Ryan Gosling, excellent supporting turns from Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks, and a bit of actual emotion and heart that made a minimal plot have purpose. Only God Forgives lacks these elements, to put it bluntly.
While it looks absolutely incredible, awash with the kind of dazzling, beautiful lighting not seen since Suspiria, and features a creeping, insidious electro score from the Drive soundtracking Cliff Martinez that rivals his previous work, this alone does not make it cool. Drive featured that iconic look from Ryan Gosling’s Driver, toothpick in mouth and scorpion jacket, and endlessly fun car chases and set pieces, whereas the characters alone in Only God Forgives far more unlikeable and cult-like, while the few set pieces the film has are far too unpleasant to be enjoyed.
Emotion and heart, meanwhile, are lacking because there isn’t a single character approaching likeable in the film. There’s barely a character approaching human. Julian has around sixteen lines in the entire film and wears a blank expression for the rest, making him the most minimal leading character in a film this year, Crystal is trashy and just awful (when hearing her son raped and murdered a teenager, her only response is “I’m sure he had his reasons”) and police officer Chang may seemingly have morals in terms of who he punishes, but we learn nothing about his character, making him come across as nothing but a sociopath.
Though Only God Forgives is certainly a genre piece, a Thai western revenge film that owes a debt to the neon, almost sexy VHS era films, it’s incredibly disturbing violence, torture and sound put it closer in line to a horror film (the constant wash of red visible in most of the film seems to suggest the setting is hell). It has to be said in the film’s favour that the sound design is peerless, the best I’ve seen since last year’s Berberian Sound Studio. Any time you hear that graceful swish of a sword being pulled out, you’ll recoil in horror at the knowledge that something bad is about to happen. You will struggle to recall a more excessively violent mainstream film ever, and that isn’t close to an exaggeration.
Occasionally, Refn will cut away just before the shot and spare us, or use a dark setting so that we only see vague details, but sometimes he goes beyond gratuitous, and actually becomes just unpleasant and borderline unwatchable. The scene that caused me real discomfort was the torture scene in which Chang enters a nightclub and finds the man who set a hit on him. Now, with Drive, Refn did use some strong bloody violence but they lasted a few frames and were mostly made worse by the suggestion. As somebody who has seen hundreds of horror films, I’m generally not affected by screen violence, but with this scene, I almost walked out.
Featuring the most disgusting abuse of an eye since Zombie Flesh Eaters way back in the 70’s, Chang’s torture and murder of the man with chopsticks and needles is so utterly grim that I instantly hated the character of Chang, and didn’t really want to keep watching. Also of notoriety is a scene I won’t spoil, but which involves a character putting his hands into a corpse which is frankly disgusting, and only exists to shock. Never before and hopefully never again will we see a more extreme mainstream film.
Ryan Gosling, or more specifically the character of Julian, is another major flaw in the film. He is simply nothing. There’s no layer or depth to him, very little emotion, and nothing to make him engage, which is a problem for the leading role. Refn describes the film as about “a man who wants to fight God” but that doesn’t come across, apart from the repeated, boring shots of his clenched fists. His mother describes him as “dangerous” but again there’s no on-screen evidence of this; he’s probably the most restrained character in the film.
Speaking of which, Kristin Scott-Thomas as Crystal is far and away the film’s best turn, even if she’s playing the most hateable character I’ve seen in a while. It’s pantomime and ridiculous, but she plays it with a gusto and at least feels vaguely real, even if she’s prone to calling his son’s girlfriend a “cum dumpster” and comparing the sons’ penis size (the film’s references to incest were awful, and made it more risible, it has to be said). It’s a good performance but the character seems too over the top for a minimalist film like Only God Forgives. One character who annoyingly isn’t in it enough is Julian’s prostitute he regularly meets up with in weird but occasionally sexy bedroom encounters. She is actually quite likeable and nice, and gets five minutes of screen time.
It’s such a shame that Only God Forgives wastes what I have no problem in calling a flawless score, flawless camerawork and flawless design with the rest of the film. Its glacial pace, random Lynchian-abstract scenes (the jarring karaoke) and Gosling’s battered, shell of a character are likely to turn off fans of Gosling and Drive, whilst the beyond gratuitous violence, uncomfortable sexuality and unoriginal plot won’t attract many more audiences. A film this beautiful to look at and listen to could never be a failure, and to its credit, Only God Forgives isn’t a boring film, but ultimately, it’s a depressingly unlikeable film that takes itself too seriously and removes any trace of fun it should have, ranking among the least pleasant cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time.
By Harry Ford