So you’ve just watched Drive (maybe you haven’t, just play along, okay?). You thought it was an enjoyable, remarkably intelligent popcorn thriller (maybe you didn’t, please just play along). So, you think, hey, this Refn guy, he makes some good stuff, I’ll have to watch out for him. Couple years later, he does another film with Gosling, you think, hey, this trailer looks alright, Bangkok-set revenge thriller, I’ll give it a watch. You walk out of the theatre (or streaming service, whatever), thinking, “What?”
At least, that’s how I felt. Only God Forgives is an interesting movie. It’s perhaps the biggest mixed bag of a film I have ever viewed. The cinematography is downright beautiful, the direction similarly incredible, the script, however, is total nonsense. The performances are mixed, Kristin Scott Thomas is great; however, Ryan Gosling puppy dog-faces his way through the role of Julian. He’s a blank slate of a character, so much more shallow and meaningless than the Driver. What does he have? Guilt over [insert spoiler here]? His Oedipal relationship with his mother? Even the effects of that are left largely unexplored—leaving Julian with, well, nothing really. Refn experiments further with the “silent protagonist” routine—similar to the Driver, Julian has little to say; however, this is taken to an extreme not seen in Drive: Julian only has 17 lines, total. Handicapping a character in this regard is like shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to storytelling, communicating information about the protagonist becomes incredibly difficult. You’d think, considering Drive and Valhalla Rising, that Refn would have a better hold over this type of storytelling, but a closer look reveals that the writing in Drive comes from Hossein Amini, and that Valhalla Rising had another screenwriter in addition to Refn. But Only God Forgives has only Refn at the wheel of the script, and he doesn’t appear to handle it well: the characters in the film aren’t characters, per se, more like metaphors: Chang is God, Julian a sinner, Crystal (?) (possibly the devil). Hands are also a symbol, they mean sin, usually of the murderous variety.
The story of Only God Forgives is difficult to summarize, but I’ll try: Julian owns a boxing club in Bangkok, it serves as a front for his and his brother’s drug distribution ring. One night, Julian’s brother, the unstable Billy, violently murders a 16-year-old prostitute. Her father is allowed to bestow the same violence upon Billy by Chang, a retired police lieutenant known by the moniker “The Angel of Vengeance.” He then punishes the father, not for the murder, but for allowing his daughters into the world of prostitution, by taking an arm. Julian is ordered to exact vengeance by his overbearing mother, Crystal. When he doesn’t after hearing about the girl’s murder, his mother takes things into her own hands. Things happen, then the movie ends. And that’s pretty much it.
As a narrative, Only God Forgives is severely lacking. The characters are either blank slates or unlikeable garbage human beings. The events of the “story” are full of hallucinations of Julian’s, which mean something, or something like that. The ultimate message of all this meandering about is “murder is sin, sin needs punishment,” or at least, I think that’s what the incredibly simplistic message behind this incredibly vague narrative is. In the end, nothing really matters, Julian either is or isn’t forgiven for his sins, we’re left with an open ending, Chang is untouchable as a villain, he’s not even really likeable, or even right. Because a man fails to tell who hired him, he tortures him to death in an ultraviolent, incredibly uncomfortable, disgusting scene. I suppose this man is our “God” in this narrative, in this world. Only God Forgives is like watching a bunch of people you don’t really like trying to tell you a story they’re convinced is the most important in the world, and full of super deep stuff, yet they can’t manage to maintain an entertaining nor consistent narrative.
However, as a visual experience, Only God Forgives is damn near unmatchable. Larry J. Smith has become one of the great cinematographers, up there with Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki. I cannot stress enough just how beautiful this film looks. Here, take a look yourself:
After viewing a film with such utilitarian, pedestrian cinematography as Clerks, this was especially refreshing. I do wish, however, that these breathtaking frames were attached to a story that could live up to them. I will never stand for the Avatar argument: that a film as a visual experience can hold more importance than a film as a story, whether those visuals come from cinematography or excessive visual effects.
Only God Forgives is a massive disappointment as a follow-up to Drive, and a mediocre pretentious “art house” film on its own. Come on Refn, you can do better than this.
A subpar thriller that manages to squeeze out some tension and to please the eye with its glorious framing, Only God Forgives adds up to a below average film. A weak C-.
I can only hope that Refn’s next film, The Neon Demon, follows his previous pattern of subpar film followed by brilliant film. (i.e. his initial Danish work [Pusher, Bleeder] followed by the abysmally received American-produced film Fear X; then a retreat back to Denmark to finish his Pusher trilogy, an actual overseas breakthrough in Bronson, followed by the decent, yet poorly financially received Valhalla Rising, followed by Drive, then this). If not, I’ll be legitimately disappointed, I find Refn to be one of the world’s most fascinating directors working today, capable of securing the love of both the art house and popular crowds.
But that film will be a topic for another day, it’s not out for another several months. Until then, I’ll just have to be satisfied with Drive and Bronson. Until next time, don’t forget to leave some feedback in the comments below, and if you’d like to read more, you can click the follow button to the right on the sidebar or check me out on Twitter @ThatOtherCritic, and I’ll see you all when I ramble some more words onto this blogosphere. Laters!