The duo of Nicolas WInding Refn and Ryan Gosling team up once again after the big success of 2011’s Drive. I loved Drive, even more so after repeat viewings, so needless to say I was very excited about Only God Forgives when it came onto my radar. I always advise against having preconceptions about movies, but in this case I was at least hoping this film would have some similar qualities, such as the sleek, yet dark vibe and gritty story.
Only God Forgives, written and directed by Refn, follows Gosling’s Julian, a drug kingpin in Bangkok who also runs a boxing ring. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) runs things by his side, but early on Billy has an encounter with a very young prostitute that results in her death and ultimately his own. The gruesome events end up being linked to a corrupt police chief named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who exercises his own form of justice. This news puts Julian on the prowl to find his brother’s killer and also brings in the mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has an even greater thirst for vengeance.
Early screenings of this film resulted in many negative reviews, including it actually being booed. This only made me want to see the film even more, as I’m always one to need to see something for myself and I’ve also heard some equally positive things about the film. While I think the act of an adult “booing,” is quite despicable, I do now see why this film has so many polarizing views.
For starters, the film definitely takes the silent protagonist character to a different level. While Driver in Drive was a quiet, calm, but confident individual, Julian is emotionally dead, almost lifeless. In an interview with JoBlo Gosling mentions that the character was meant to be more of an avatar for the audience, as in Drive where he was the Driver, here he is the car. Huh? This would make sense if the movie were somehow interactive, but what this results in is several long scenes of Julian staring, expressionless, making the shortest most simple scenes seem like an eternity. This is by no means a criticism on Gosling’s take on the character, he has this methodology down good, but this approach does nothing for an audience but cause them frustration.
When Kristin Scott Thomas’ character is introduced, it turns things up a notch. She has the most dialog in the film, which should be a welcoming fact as it would offset the rest of the painfully silent characters, but there’s no one to balance her vile and cringe-worthy personality. Mom does add some depth to the story with the incestuous suggestions the mommy and daddy issues that would explain some of Julian’s behavior (or lack-thereof).
Moving onto the style of the film, it honestly wasn’t enough to make me enjoy it just for that aspect alone. There is an overuse of red lights, which often just becomes a little distracting. Then there are the fantasy sequences that hop in and out. I didn’t have a problem with these alone, but they came in at the oddest of times, almost as if to just fill in the rest of the time when the actual scene was going nowhere. I know there are likely some deeper meanings behind every detail of this film, from those red lights to the cuts to the fantasy scenes, but that still doesn’t change the fact it didn’t work well for me on the screen, as in I think there was just too much emphasis on the style and less on the substance.
To be honest, I think this film had enough material for maybe a 30 minute short film, if that. The setup was not much to build the whole movie off of, and there weren’t many additions to the plot to keep it interesting. I actually recall looking at the time, it was already about an hour in and I felt like there were no developments – it didn’t feel slow or anything, I just couldn’t believe so little happened in so much time. What did stretch this film out was the painfully long pauses where characters fail to say anything at all, or don’t respond to each within a reasonable time, or not at all, the use of slow motion and dragging out the sometimes oddly placed fantasy sequences.
I just want to feel connected to something with a film, whether it is simply artistically speaking or feeling something for the characters or the story being told. I really didn’t end up caring for any of the characters here, aside from the prostitute (the object of Julian’s desire) and I really only felt sympathy for her. I didn’t feel a connection to anything at all with the film, and not even Ryan Gosling could save it for me. I know the goal of the director is to get a response out of people, so in a way he did achieve that. I do not enjoy writing about how I did not enjoy a movie. However, I guess in doing so it does give the director credit that I did sit through the film, and I did give it my time and attention.
Who knows, maybe like Drive, I’ll watch this one again later on and enjoy it more (or maybe not).