Only God Forgives Review
11Drive simply must have been that rare perfect confluence of elements – suitable story enriched by the director’s strong visual style and a stunningly evocative score; interesting characters and engaging performances, championed by a star-on-the-rise lead. It’s one of my favourite films of the last 10 years. So, when I heard about a ‘spiritual sequel’ – a follow-up which would see the director Nicholas Winding Refn re-team with lead actor Ryan Gosling, taking us to Thailand for a dark crime thriller set against a Thai boxing backdrop – my anticipation was simply off the chain.
With high hopes when I first heard about it, I declared this top of my most anticipated movies of 2013 list, expecting it to be a strong contender – alongside Cuaron’s Gravity and Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines – for the best film of the year. Why wouldn’t I? It’s from the guys who made Drive! The lead actor, who is consistently – in himself, and irrespective of the film – highly engaging, had apparently studied Thai boxing for the part. One of my favourite film score composers of late, Cliff Martinez, was back providing the score. What could go wrong?
Then early reviews started to trickle in, with some praising the visuals and the supporting performances – as well as Refn’s refusal to adhere to conventional filmmaking form – whilst others criticised the lack of character development, excessive style, unnecessary violence and general vacuousness of the piece. It sounded far more divisive than I had hoped for. Sure, Drive had been divisive, and Refn’s earlier works – including the likes of Valhalla Rising and Bronson – even more so, but I still held out hope. After all, whilst I did not like Valhalla or Bronson anywhere near as much as Drive, I appreciated them both, and was at least captivated by the central performances therein. Maybe Only God Forgives was just misunderstood.
A Thai boxing club; fighters preparing; the camera sliding gracefully across the stage, setting the scene: warriors clashing, promoters encouraging, the audience enthralled. Julian runs the club, watching from the back. Amidst the crowd a trio of shifting shadows draw together in an exchange of palms. Dealers dealing. Behind the Thai boxing club front a large, a drug smuggling operation runs at full throttle, driven by Julian’s elder brother, Billy. But Billy has bigger demons to face, declaring one night that it’s ‘time to meet the devil’ as he takes to the neon-red-light-bathed streets in an unflinchingly determined search for an underage prostitute to abuse. Billy’s depraved behaviour leads him to Lieutenant Chang, a cop only in the loosest sense of the word; more like a judge, jury and executioner – only not in a clichéd, romanticised way. Chang teaches lessons with his sword, the price paid in lost limbs.
Violence is met with violence, blood upon blood, and the events of the night see Julian searching for the man who wronged his family. What he finds, though, is a gaping grey area where criminal depravity, violent revenge and street justice all collide. He sees, for a fleeting moment, the pure truth in the actions of Lieutenant Chang, a living Angel of Vengeance. Then his mother arrives, Crystal, drawn to Thailand by her first son and the pain he suffered. Crystal has her own ideas about justice in this matter, and sees Julian as weak and impotent in comparison to his superior brother. She demands further blood be spilled. Unable to do otherwise, Julian agrees.
There’s no doubt that Nicholas Winding Refn is an impressive filmmaker. Considering the budget he generally works with – all his films have been independent productions, with Only God Forgives reportedly only costing about $5 Million to make – the man has serious talent. He is one of those rare few capable of painting a thousand-word picture, telling stories with minimal dialogue; crafting palpable atmosphere, delivering intoxicating visuals and enriching them with a pitch-perfect score, more often than not – as is the case here – courtesy of long-term collaborator Cliff Martinez.
His agenda was to create yet another dark fairytale in the same vein as Drive, a mythical story set in a heightened reality where his iconic characters live. To this end, he certainly delivers. Brimming with religious symbolism and metaphysical themes; borrowing heavily from both Greek and Shakespearian tragedy, Only God Forgives is Macbeth-meets-Oedipus in a lurid, hyper-stylised Thai setting.
Sound and Vision
As with all of his works, Refn throws film conventions to the wind in favour of messing with your mind. His supposed hero is a fatally flawed individual whose streak of inner morality is forever tainted by the overwhelming Lady Macbeth-like influence of his mother; who is, as with the Lady herself, clearly the true villain of the piece. And the supposed villain – a violent cop who dishes out his own street justice with unflinching brutality – is the kind of character central to many familiar anti-hero fables, from Dredd to basically any Clint Eastwood classic.
Whilst some might struggle with the long, moody shots – pausing for contemplation as characters are bathed in true Brando/Apocalypse Now-esque shadow, or interspersing his ‘reality’ with nightmarish dream sequences that evoke Kubrick’s Shining and revel in the pure understated tension of cameras rolling down empty corridors, the walls enshrouded in blood red light – there’s a majesty to Refn’s style. It’s oppressive, and thick with on-the-cusp violence, the simmering atmosphere ever-ready to explode. Few can create such a threatening environment just through dialogue-less set visuals and the perfect accompanying sound and music.
To that end Cliff Martinez delivers utterly in his score. Whilst few will find it as easy to watch beyond the movie – unlike Drive’s score – it is almost as refined, driven by a bass-centric malevolence, and unafraid of erupting into atypical tones during the most important set-pieces. In one of the key moments – “Wanna’ fight?!” – Martinez adopts an electronica build-up which surely wouldn’t have been out of place in Daft Punk’s seminal Tron: Legacy score, only here infused with just enough classic Hammer Horror organ accompaniment to undercut the modern tones with old school, Old Testament portents.
Unfortunately, despite best-laid plans, and the quality of the ingredients, the end result here is far from the perfect dish that was Drive. Indeed it’s probably Refn’s most hard-to-appreciate, impossible-to-love work, skirting around the edge of logic whilst riding high atop a mount named symbolism, which would be fine were it not for the fact that Only God Forgives lands squarely in the University Student camp. You know, when you’re a first year and you sit around talking about how amazing Withnail and I is? Then you grow up and wake up.
Refn goes above and beyond in the style camp, which would have been utterly forgivable if there was but one single character you could adhere to; one single aspect you could relate to or hold on to. Instead, the whole thing is cold and aloof, even the strongest performances merely rendering largely nasty individuals in partially-formed semi-dimensionality. Gazing from afar. That’s all well and good, but there needed to be a root to this tale. And if it lay in the forgiveness of Ryan Gosling’s supposedly lead character? Well, he needed a better-developed part to pull off that.
Gosling certainly deserves credit for remaining unpredictable. For as many mainstream flicks as he is prepared to lend his hand to, he’s committed to just as many (if not more) independent features – for every Gangster Squad there’s a Blue Valentine, and for every Crazy. Stupid. Love. there’s a The Place Beyond the Pines. Indeed even in his more mainstream features he himself remains eminently watchable, as if he is trying to invest just that little bit extra in the role – above and beyond what is required of him. Unfortunately, unlike the re-teaming with director Cianfrance earlier this year (where they topped Blue Valentine with an even more impressive The Place Beyond the Pines), his reunion with Nicholas Winding Refn simply doesn’t deliver on the great expectations.
From the Thai boxing training (no evidence of which is present, or perhaps even important, to this film) to the allusions of it being a Drive ‘sequel’, albeit in tone and style, Only God Forgives actually has nothing to do with its supposed sibling, and Gosling’s character even less in common with the unnamed Driver. The part was originally to go to Luke Evans, before he opted for The Hobbit instead, and the film was actually supposed to be made immediately after Refn’s Valhalla Rising – and before his 2011 Drive) – but was delayed because Gosling requested Refn shoot Drive first. It was probably a good decision. For, as impressive as Refn is as a director, if he’d made Only God Forgives first, he might have been further dismissed with little further thought. It’s only the critical and commercial success of Drive that have truly kept him in favour – all of his other features are visionary but oftentimes inaccessible independent films that are too dark and violent to really tap into the mainstream, something which Drive could finally do.
Anti-heroes and Anti-villains
With Gosling doing his best Brando impression, drowned in shadows, saying little and often caught up in his own nightmarish dreams, the film could have perhaps survived with better surrounding storytelling. But unfortunately it requires more than just an aloof Gosling in the central part – we simply don’t get into this character, which is a must in a film that, ultimately, focuses quite heavily on his past, present and plight. Sure, we don’t need half a dozen soliloquys to hammer home the fact that he is basically playing an ill-fated Macbeth role; nor do we need anything more than a couple of loving embraces to get the incestuous Oedipus angles, but, for a film that expects us to care about the path that he has set upon, we need more from the character than we get.
Opposite him, Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm is superb as the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ who cruises the streets dishing out his own brutal justice on those he deems guilty. He is certainly somebody that we don’t need to know much more about, and so we forgive the similar lack of dialogue (no English dialogue, and only a bit of Thai), as it’s his actions that determine his character – a true Old School ‘angel’ who, as has already been mentioned, could have easily been spawned from the Dirty Harry / Dredd characters we are more familiar with. What makes this different is pitching him as the antagonist, but it works – or would have worked – if there had been a stronger protagonist. As is, we get an excellent anti-villain, and an underdeveloped, at times even insufferable anti-hero. I think I’d have just preferred a film about the former, without the focus on the latter at all.
Kristin Scott Thomas has certainly been gaining a lot of praise for her role as the mother, again raising those Lady Macbeth / Oedipus’s mother/lover vibe here with her rotten-to-the-core villain. You can see immediately where these characters sit on the moral scale when Gosling’s Julian tries to explain the elder brother’s raping and killing of a young prostitute, and his mother just dismisses it – as if nothing could taint the rose-twisted view she has of her own son.
Of late, Scott Thomas has been carving a name out for herself in the foreign cinema ranks, showing off her perfect dual-language capabilities in French, and starring in a number of acclaimed French films. Perhaps she never got the recognition she truly deserved. Here, she certainly does stand out amidst the rest, if for no other reason than her sexy fake blonde viper spits out more dialogue than all of the others put together. It’s nice because, through her venomous words we get to learn not only more about her character but, more importantly, more about her sons – including Gosling’s Julian. And, whilst it’s still not enough to fully form these characters, it teases at a better-thought-out-script which lies beneath Refn’s smothering style.
There is, unfortunately, a fine line that filmmakers can all-too-easily cross between artistic worth and pretentious fancy. Some probably think Refn has crossed it several times before, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Drive was the perfect blend of ingredients, and its style was certainly fitting to the material, rather than the only thing that you ended up watching. Indeed it’s probably the far more ethereal Valhalla Rising which came the closest to justifiably being cast off as pretentious.
Only God Forgives certainly treads all over this line, moreso than Refn has ever dared before, and I think it probably even slips over it a few times too. It’s all good and well to leave audiences with the feeling that they have been experiencing something desperately elusive – often this can be forgiven as enigmatically enthralling – but, when the film you’re watching starts to betray the possibility that even the filmmakers themselves didn’t have a true grasp on what they were committed to, things start to unravel. There was an undeniable plan to Only God Forgives, but the end result is so smothered in thick style and mood – and Refn clearly so preoccupied with rendering it as such – that the truth feels not only obscured but downright lost. We’re left pondering the point of some scenes, rather than just absorbing them – the karaoke sequences, for example, losing almost all meaning and symbolism, whether it be in words or placement –and leaving us simultaneously pleading for more answers whilst also desperately queuing for the exit, as the end credits roll.
Yes, Refn is a talented filmmaker. I'll never argue that fact. Yes, Gosling is a talented actor. There's no denying that either. But the magic just isn't here; the force isn't strong with this one. Even Refn's most elusive works have still been capable of sheer admiration, where affection is hard to achieve. It is similarly possible to admire the work put into Only God Forgives, but it steps ever closer towards robbing us of even that testament. Fitfully intoxicating and stylistically daring, it's also tragically flawed and undeniably disappointing; an unfortunate example of style suffocating substance. Still, Refn will probably, thankfully, survive his latest controversial, divisive, curio largely on the basis of his last masterpiece; Only Drive Forgives.
VerdictThere is, unfortunately, a fine line that filmmakers can all-too-easily cross between artistic worth and pretentious fancy. Only God Forgives treads all over this line. It’s all good and well to leave audiences with the feeling that they have been experiencing something desperately elusive – often this can be forgiven as enigmatically enthralling – but, when the film you’re watching starts to betray the possibility that even the filmmakers themselves didn’t have a true grasp on what they were committed to, things start to unravel. There was an undeniable plan to Only God Forgives, but the end result is so smothered in thick style and mood – and Refn clearly so preoccupied with rendering it as such – that the truth feels not only obscured but downright lost. We’re left pondering the point of some scenes, rather than just absorbing them, leaving us simultaneously pleading for more answers whilst also desperately queuing for the exit, as the end credits roll.
Yes, Refn is a talented filmmaker. I'll never argue that fact. Yes, Gosling is a talented actor. There's no denying that either. But the magic just isn't here; the force isn't strong with this one. Even Refn's most elusive works have been capable of sheer admiration, where affection is harder to achieve. It is similarly possible to admire the work put into Only God Forgives, but it steps ever closer towards robbing us of even that testament. Fitfully intoxicating and stylistically daring, it's also tragically flawed and undeniably disappointing; an unfortunate example of style suffocating substance. Still, Refn will probably, thankfully, survive his latest controversial, divisive, curio largely on the basis of his last masterpiece; Only Drive Forgives.
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