Only God Forgives is essentially a revenge thriller set in the criminal underworld of Bangkok but the plot is almost incidental as this film is more concerned with the artistry of cinema than any narrative.
The movie is being sold on the tantalising reteaming of Danish/American director Nicholas Winding Refn with actor Ryan Gosling, after their work on the Oscar-nominated/Cannes-winning Drive. I thought Drive was absolutely superb from the moment I saw it and it has gone on to impress me even more with subsequent viewings. Only God Forgives is similarly a film that you will get more out of the more you watch it but, unlike its predecessor, I’m not sure I have any great desire to see it again.
That isn’t to say that Only God Forgives is a bad movie, not at all. There is much to admire here with highly skilled direction and great performances but it is very minimal and very brutal. The film centres around characters who believe their actions are motivated by some kind of justice but it is not always easy to watch because there is, in reality, no justification for this level of violence – artistically on screen perhaps but not in reality. It makes it hard to sympathise with any of the central players who are almost comically vicious and unremorseful.
The film is quite stylised and while it is only done to the smallest degree (this is no Romeo and Juliet or Scott Pilgrim), it does serve to distance you from the action. All of this is quite deliberate and it is in the excellent framing, lighting and general direction that the true artistry shows through.
Only God Forgives is by turns violent and beautiful and has a very clear art house sensibility. Imagine a cross between Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, both at their most unrelenting, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the what to expect.
While Nicholas Winding Refn’s direction is reminiscent of these two film makers though, he is no magpie. He is developing into a real auteur and, like Ben Wheatley, is making the films he wants to make with no thought of commercial or critical dividends. He is giving us works of art that demand discussion and although this won’t necessarily get him the widest group of friends (or highest number of followers on Twitter) it is to be applauded.
If you are going to see this film looking for Drive 2 then you will need to shift your expectations (which I did and I did). Drive was a fairly mainstream and accessible film with a metaphorical ‘white knight, damsel in distress, evil king, fairytale’ element running beneath the surface (the director’s analogy, not mine). With Only God Forgives the allegorical nature of the work is much more explicit and it is here that repeat viewings will undoubtably pay off. It clearly has something to say about family, religion and judgement but I am sure there is much more here that I missed. I am also beginning to think there might be some Fight Club comparisons to be made as well but to pick that apart would spoil both films. If you know Fight Club you will know what I mean and why I can’t talk about it.
Drive was also a very American film in its themes and cinematic influences. It had Ryan Gosling channelling Clint Eastwood’s isolated nomadic hero with no name operating in a multicultural society. I am not as familiar with Thai history and culture but this film feels as immersed in the country it is set in as the director and actor’s last collaboration. It is no less atmospheric than Drive but this is a very different atmosphere.
Ryan Gosling is as laconic here as he was before but rather than this being a laid back performance he demonstrates an impressive ability to emote through subtle changes in facial expression – here even more than in Drive. Gosling is not necessarily the out and out protagonist of the piece though, the film is equally built around two other very interesting performances.
Kristin Scott Thomas is a much more versatile actor than her best known role suggests but I’m fairly sure she’s never been seen like this before. If you do only know her from Four Weddings and a Funeral then it is entirely likely you will have trouble excepting that this is actually the same woman. Believe me when I say that calling someone Duck Face is considerably less offensive than the things she says and does on screen here. Then there is Vithaya Pansringarm as the single father, karaoke singing, almost supernaturally unshakable police officer, reluctant to speak but totally unrestrained in his use of the kodachi samurai sword he keeps invisibly tucked down the back of his shirt. His actions are fuelled by a twisted sense of justice and revenge but this is not your typical case of an eye for an eye. To be fair, he does get to the eyes eventually but that isn’t where he starts sticking the knife in (and this is presented literally not metaphorically). It is his performance of a coldly composed but ferocious and almost humorously absurd sociopath that will probably stay with you the most.
Apparently the planning of this film predates that of Drive and following their partnership on that film Ryan Gosling offered his services to the director when original lead Luke Evans left to go to Middle Earth. If this does develop into an ongoing director/actor alliance then Gosling will probably need to get a little more chatty; the strong silent thing has been done now, but it seems unlikely that Winding Refn is ever going to be a film maker that plays to convention or puts his key collaborator through a series of samey roles like Burton has done with Johnny Depp. (I can’t be the only one who would now like to see Depp doing more straight roles and less Cap’n Jack.)
It should be mentioned that Nick and Ryan are not the only two Drive alumni involved in this film. Composer Cliff Martinez has written another excellent soundtrack and although there are no tasty slices of electronica pop punctuating the action this time, the music is brooding, subtly mood enhancing and conspicuous in all the right places.
Like the simply brilliant Stoker earlier this year Only God Forgives takes a fairly straightforward plot and elevates it to art. It does not quite achieve the balance in this that Stoker managed and I think the style dominates a little. It doesn’t go so far that that style eclipses or jars with the story in the way that something like The Great Gatsby or Anna Karenina did, but to be fair there is considerably less narrative for it to fight against.
This is a proper art house movie and as such has a wider distribution in cinemas than I would have expected. I wonder, with this coming off the back of Drive, if the multiplexes were not quite aware of what they were getting. The pace of the film is very slow with lots of lingering shots of people turning round, taking unhurried walks down corridors or clenching and unclenching their fists. The entire film could probably be remade shot for shot and only run for half an hour but I liked the fact that it took its time.
Only God Forgives is an engaging film that will sometimes make you laugh and sometimes make you flinch. It is sometimes gorgeous and sometimes hideous but if you are the kind of person who can handle that kind of contrast in your films, the kind of person who had no interesting in seeing John Carter of Mars last year but loved Berberian Sound Studio, this is is for you.
Is this one for the kids?
I remember watching Drive knowing it was an 18 certificate and thinking ‘this isn’t too bad, it is moody and dark but it doesn’t really need to have such a high rating’. Then suddenly about half way through came the first of the main character’s explosions of violence and I realised how it earned its certificate. Conversely , at no point did I question why Only God Forgives is an 18 so take from that what you will.
Note: I don’t always do this but sometimes I hold off on reading any reviews until I have written my own ideas down. This was the case with Only God Forgives but having now seen what other people have said I know that the film has received some very poor reviews in the UK press. Interestingly Peter Bradshaw loved it, Philip French wrote a positive review, Empire Magazine gave it five stars and Kim Newman praised it in Sight & Sound. This only serves to highlight the inadequacy of a lot of other film critics.
I’m not being petty and simply decrying the skills of people who I disagree with but the fact is that it is impossible to write this film off if you know and appreciate cinema which I think ought to be a trait that someone employed as a film critic is able to demonstrate. You wouldn’t get work as a sports commentator if you didn’t know anything about the players and their form and the intricacies of the games and similarly you should not be a film critic just because you can express an opinion on a film, anyone can do that. The opinion given needs to be an educated one. This is certainly not the first time I have noticed this sort of thing and it bothers me. (Can you tell?)
I accept that someone may not particularly like Only God Forgives but to fail to recognise the skill behind it says more about reviewer than it does about the film.