Only God Forgives Movie Review
In 2011, ‘Drive’ was one of my contenders for the best movie of the year. It was a super stylish, cool, violent and atmospheric ride that was flawless in my eyes. Ryan Gosling was absolutely perfect for Danush director Nicolas Winding Refn’s unique vision. What Refn did there was tell an old fashioned type fairy tale in a modern setting, and added in some ridiculous music, style and graphic violence. It worked. The hope for me was that he was going to repeat that formula and success for ‘Only God Forgives.’ He had Gosling on board again, which is always good. The question is, did it work?…
A young American names Julian (Gosling), working as a drug runner in Bangkok learns that his older brother has been brutally murdered. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of his their drug business, demands he take action to get revenge against those responsible. The knowledge of his brother’s dark side and his manipulative mother’s constant demands tear at Julian as he attempts to hunt down the mysterious and violent law-man (Vithaya Pansringarm), who appears to have been behind it all.
Well let’s start with the films plot. It seems simple enough in theory and based on the descriptions you might read in plot summaries online, it sounds like your run of the mill revenge story. Gosling’s brother is murdered and he heads out to get revenge at the request of his mother. Well, this is really not the case. It’s actually much deeper than that. You would think this would be a good thing. It would, if delivered correctly.
I won’t share too much, so as not to spoil things, but let’s just say there are some psychological, moral and philosophical questions being faced by our protagonist, and these same questions are posed to the audience. This adds a little more depth to what I had expected to just be all style and no substance. The problem is though, in a strange way, Refn’s attempt at substance actually makes the film feel emptier at times. Perhaps it isn’t delivered well enough, or perhaps too thick. I love a deep plot that is open to some interpretation and isn’t black and white, but sometimes we just see blank stares from Gosling or another character, and this is supposed to be somehow profound and telling. This worked in ‘Drive.’ Here, at times, we just feel like we are looking at Ryan Gosling and the screen froze.
That being said, the film’s plot does have some interesting surprises, and if only all the stuff in between them had some more value, this could have been fantastic. In terms of the actors behind the plot, I have no problems at all there. Gosling barely speaks two words the whole film, and I mentioned his oddly un-profound stares, but overall he has a brooding presence that still manages to portray the vulnerability and guilt his character possesses. Kristin Scott Thomas is wonderful, in her role as Julian’s power hungry mother and at times she burns up the screen. My personal favorite was Vithaya Pansringarm, as the police chief who appears to be running his own kind of law in Bangkok. He portrays a character who is genuinely creepy and despite not looking like a physical presence, oozes with power and violence.
The film is also a showcase of Refn’s natural talents for visually haunting and stylistic movie making. His colors reflect the darkness. We see a lot of silhouettes, in blacks and reds, with the neon Bangkok lights our only respite from the darkness. Of course there is a lot of imagery and symbolism, as we see shots of items and backgrounds which appear to mirror or somehow relate to what we are supposed to be taking from each scene. They also hint towards the real meaning of the film. This is all done quite well I felt, and was clever enough to make me crack a smile.
In terms of action, the film was certainly UBER violent at times, and graphically so, as expected and as was Drive. However, in terms of sheer volume, this film is by no means action heavy. In fact, the truth is it plods along very slowly and unfortunately, since some of Refn’s slow, wordless scenes that were supposed to be visually meaningful, just don’t hit the mark as he intended, the proceedings get a bit dull if I’m honest. For those expecting all out action, you will be sorely disappointed.
All in all, I have to admit, the film was a bit of a disappointment, due to the lofty expectations I had. However, I also do not think it is as bad as many critics have said. It had some fantastic visual style and some great soundtrack pieces (again, as Drive did). It also has a plot that is much deeper than I expected, and the meaning behind it did hit home for me and was appreciated. The acting was solid, and Kristin Scott Thomas was maniacal and insane (in a good way). However, the simple problem here is that Refn took a lot of risks, and included a lot of material that was supposed to be artistic and stylistic, but instead just ends up being boring and meaningless to many. Essentially, certain things just didn’t hit home. The result is a film with some great moments, and a great vibe, that just gets a little boring in between. Like a sandwich made of the best bread, but with a pretty tasteless filling.