ONLY GOD FORGIVES
a review by Pete Wassell IAFT/Los Angeles
Before I go into my analysis of Only God Forgives—the latest Nicholas Winding Refn/Ryan Gosling production, the duo’s second venture—I want to give you some context for my viewing of the film.
I started it late one night about 3 weeks ago. It was around 12:30, I was dog tired, but really wanted to watch this film. So I watched the first 20 minutes before my eyelids grew heavy and I had to throw in the towel. I put my jeans on one leg at a time, just like you, and I work a desk job, just like you, which means I need sleep…but I digress…I enjoyed the hell out of those first 20 minutes. I was seeing inspiration from Jodorowski, Kubrick, and the Coen Brothers. I thought, yeah this is slow, but it’s deliberate, and I like that.
So I fell asleep, and 3 weeks later, on the night of 9/29/13, AFTER having watched the finale of Breaking Bad, I settled in for what would turn out to be a very grueling and unrewarding 90 minutes. Let me explain.
For a film that Refn obviously took the time to shoot so beautifully (literally every frame is bursting with color and intriguing compositions), he didn’t make a beautiful film. Instead, the characters say nothing, do nothing, and resolve nothing.
The story goes like this: In the criminal underground of Bangkok, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a big time drug smuggler and brother to Billy who is killed in the opening by a young woman’s father. Billy raped and murdered this young woman, so you can understand the father’s motivation. However, there is a Dirty Harry style cop who gets involved as well. Did he kill Billy? That’s what Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal, wants to know, and she will stop at nothing to see it done. Including emotionally lashing Julian by regaling his girlfriend with stories of Julian’s jealousy of Billy, and his lack of panache in the sack…what?…yeah, you heard me. The sack. Julian and Billy have been sexually engaged with their mother for quite a while. Crystal is established somewhat as the boss of this international drug ring, and she’s cold as ice. Crystal wants the father of the woman Billy killed, dead, as well as the cop who was on the case. The cop, named Chang, literally says almost nothing through the entire film, except for a few scenes of karaoke with his loyal and diligent subordinates watching in fascination.
Oddly enough, the film is dedicated to Jodorowski, who made the midnight movie classics El Topo and Holy Mountain. Strange films that don’t really follow a coherent plot, but that nonetheless look beautiful and keep the audience engaged as it dances through a barren world of sights and sounds.
The problem with Only God Forgives is that it takes itself way too seriously, peppering in plot points that make it seem like Refn is grasping at straws, trying to tell a story in the middle of his surreal landscape, instead of letting the landscape be the story. What Jodorowski did so brilliantly was to allow the audience to let go and experience the film, whereas Refn tries to paint characters and build a plot in the midst of sensational violence (oftentimes feeling exploitative and childish) and cold expressions. The Oedipal aspect comes off as weird and inappropriate instead of unnerving and intriguing. The entire time during the film all I wanted was for one of the characters to say something that meant anything and to express some sort of emotion other than what looked to me to be complete incomprehension.
The bottom line is Refn built a stellar cast of veterans and newcomers and it feels like he almost had to force a plot into the film in order to placate the actors and give them something to think about while on set. If he had maintained that surreal and quiet tone throughout the film instead of trying to tell an oedipal revenge fantasy, he would have fared better.
I would suggest you see it, if for nothing else, as I said before, than Refn’s attention to color and framing. If you can tune out what the actors are doing and saying, you might enjoy the film.