Nicholas Winding Refn brings us his follow-up to “Drive” in the form a hypnotic and often dreamlike morality tale. Set in the Bangkok criminal underworld, the movie follows three characters and their actions within the story. Drive is one of maybe 4 or 5 movies in the past few years that I have given the fabled A+ rating. Naturally I was looking forward to this one but my anticipation was toned down as negative reactions started coming out. After seeing it, I completely understand why.
No matter what this movie ended up being, it was going to be unfairly compared to Drive which reached a level most movies don’t even strive to achieve. So take the negative reactions with a grain of salt. To me they feel unfair. Don’t trust anybody that randomly watched it and said “This SUCKS!”. Only God Forgives is full of Refn’s trademark stylistic violence and odd/interesting characters. The story involves Julian (Ryan Gosling) seeking revenge for the murder of his brother. Julians mother, Crytsal, (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to Bangkok to convince Julian to get revenge on the killer. Thomas has the most to work with because of her character’s dialogue which allows her to give a disturbing and chilling performance. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who is responsible for Julian’s brothers death, is a cop. Ill make this simple and tell you… he is God.
The movie never explicitly tells you any of its symbolism but Chang is always the one deciding if a character who has committed a crime will live or die. He appears emotionless and calmly delivers people judgement. I found it fairly obvious. His magical sword appears as he stands in front of people whom he can forgive or kill. The opposite of him is Crystal who I believe represents the Devil. She’s always the one whispering in Julians ear what to do. There’s clearly something odd going on in their relationship. Her presence only causes problems. It’s scenes that reveal the characters while also being tense that make this movie good. Few scenes are 2-Dimensional here. Julian is torn between these two as he searches for religion and meaning. It just doesn’t build up with any character interaction leaving the movie feeling slightly weak with its handling of interesting characters. As complex as this movie is visually, it could’ve been far superior had it utilized real characters.
The problem with this three character story is that it’s so caught up in its artistic endeavors that it forgets to give us a compelling story between them all. The editing jumps from place to place sometimes midway through scenes and feels jarring for the viewer. Little dialogue is used throughout which is fine if you can tell the story visually, and at points this movie succeeds in that way but sometimes fails as well. The story and characters both move like molasses. Though the positive of that is that every line of dialogue and most scenes are important and MEAN something. It’s just that if we’re involved or more interested in the story then you can use symbolism and it feels more powerful. Just look at David Lynch because his movies do it perfectly (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet etc.) I just know most people will miss nearly everything this movie has to offer. I can’t completely fault the movie for that though because I think challenging movies that unnerve people are far more interesting than basic ones.
Refn clearly knows how to make a movie look beautiful with its cinematography as well having a hypnotic and powerful soundtrack. It’s just that the story and symbolism doesn’t amount to as much as it wants too. It feels like a whole lot of surface value as we watch these characters commit violent acts and interact. Don’t get me wrong there is some depth but not enough at points. The movie does keep you guessing as to what will happen next and what these things happening mean. The level of tension that Refn can create is impressive. He just lacks the ability here to do it between characters. This is where the lack of dialogue hurts it. The movie is just so damn subtle with its symbolism but eventually after multiple viewings became pretty obvious. There is a problem though if people have no idea what’s going on because you completely alienate your audience.
Some scenes are incredibly powerful with just the look on characters faces as well as the pulsing music and vibrant visuals. The violence always keeps you on your feet and you want to look away but can’t. This movie pleases the senses in an interesting way and that’s the best thing going for it. I can’t say that many movies this year have brought these feelings out of me. It has the ability to suck us in visually and make our senses go wild if only for a few moments. It just doesn’t give us much more than that. There’s a certain fight scene in here that looks like a real Kung Fu match and it is amazingly choreographed and shot. It also provides for one of the simplest, deepest and most awesome quotes of the year…”Wanna Fight?” This is where the violence and sensory pleasing moments works best. When it’s building a scene with tension and plot with characters.
I did find it quite impressive that the characters even with little dialogue feel unique and fleshed out. You can understand their simple motivations just through interactions and eye contact. The story is almost all told visually and actually layers the movie fairly well in this way. It’s all expertly done and is sometimes so subtle that most will not understand any of it. I surely didn’t at first. All the characters are interesting because of their actions. We just never come to learn much about any of them and therefore we don’t care too much for what happens. Julian is the hero but it’s so tough to get a grasp on what’s going on here at points that I can’t say I was rooting for him. I don’t think we’re supposed to though. Gosling does the best that he can but the script just doesn’t allow for the great anti-hero that Drive was able to give us. With a strong script this movie could have been compelling and thrilling along with its impressive visuals, unique characters and soundtrack. Too often does it delve into its own artistic ambitions that just feel sometimes forced and unnecessary. Though these artistic ambitions are very interesting and intriguing, it just doesn’t feel like enough.
I’m not sure that Only God Forgives amounts to as much as it wants too but it’s surely a sensory pleasing and odd ride. Nicholas Winding Refn is a visionary director as he creates incredibly original and extreme movies. Even if you don’t like this, you can’t argue that he’s not extreme or original. When you break it down there’s a lot more to like than dislike. The characters are interesting in this dreamlike and symbolic world that’s vibrant with colors. The movie itself feels like you’re inside a nightmare, but you don’t understand all of it which is just like an actual dream. This allows the viewer to feel like Julian does at points. I do think this provokes interesting thoughts after as you try to comprehend what you just saw. It’s a beautifully looking puzzle with meaning behind most of its pieces. The movie just never fully kicks into gear with its plot and characters and thats a shame because there’s so much potential in them. If any of this sounds interesting definitely check it out because it’s certainly a love/hate movie for most people and that’s the intention. I personally am more on the love side.
The movie often feels brilliant in its ambition and execution though doesn’t quite become great or have enough to say for as artistic as it is. The symbolism within its characters is incredibly interesting but I can’t say that it goes anywhere or shows us something profound. It will bring out some kind of emotion from you and perhaps that’s the meaning of it all. Maybe we’re supposed to look for what it all means and our reaction is the payoff. We essentially learn about ourselves throughout the movie making it an experience. There will not be a movie you will experience this year as interesting and odd as this. To me, it’s about a man searching for meaning and religion as his dark past haunts him. He’s a man who is fighting with God and this is literally and figuratively done here. I found this idea incredibly intriguing! It’s so inventive and daring even if it doesn’t completely work. It’s definitely a movie you can study and ponder over long after it ends. Only God Forgives is a hypnotic experience that delivers interesting ideas, but it can’t fully back up its artistic endeavors.
Worth noting that as days have passed since my initial viewing I’ve begun to like it more and more (I’ve adjusted my review accordingly). So give it time and thought after your first viewing.