Anyone who watched ‘Drive,’ the first collaboration between Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, would have been eager to watch their second collaboration, ‘Only God Forgives.’ ‘Drive’ was perhaps Refn’s masterpiece, a brilliant mesh of genres with a delectable soundtrack. I, too, was eager to see ‘Only God Forgives,’ but had to wait until its DVD release to watch it. Apparently no cinemas in my vicinity want to show Refn films! I’m having the same difficulty trying to find a showing for ‘The Neon Demon.’ So, to prepare for the latter, Refn’s latest film, I re-watched ‘Only God Forgives.’ I admit I fell asleep during my first viewing. If you’re expecting ‘Drive: The Sequel,’ then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
‘Only God Forgives’ is a challenging film. It will test your patience and your stomach at times. There’s little plot involved. Trying to distinguish between reality and hallucination/daydreaming becomes frustrating. You could call it a revenge film, but then you’d probably have more dialogue than Gosling does in the entirety of this film. Basically, in deepest, darkest Bangkok, Julian’s (played by Gosling) brother Billy rapes and murders a sixteen year old prostitute. Billy actually wanted a fourteen year old to buy for an hour, so there’s implied paedophilia barely fifteen minutes into the film. Police officer Chang, who fashions himself as the ‘Angel of Vegeance,’ allows the prostitute’s father to kill Billy. But then he slices off the father’s arm for letting his daughter become a prostitute. Julian forgoes revenge in the belief that his brother deserved to die. Julian’s mother (played by Kristen Scott Thomas), who flies immediately to Bangkok, demands otherwise. Thus continues the cycle of revenge begetting revenge, with Chang at the centre of things.
“I don’t wanna talk about it anymore”
‘Only God Forgives’ doesn’t rely on ‘plot’ to progress the story, but rather relies on symbolism and static scenes of Gosling staring into space. If you happen to admire Gosling’s face, then you’ll be in for a treat. If not, you’ll be waiting for something to happen. For a film that is barely an hour and a half, it feels about twice its length at times. I adore sumptuous visuals, and there are stacks of them in this film. But there are also poorly lit scenes of Gosling daydreaming which consume at least half of the film. I appreciate given time to reflect on symbolism, plot or characters in a film, but I began to think Refn had left the camera rolling and Gosling couldn’t remember what to say next, so just stared into space. The extras have more to say than Gosling, who’s supposed to be the main character.
Kristen Scott Thomas jump starts the film when she appears as Crystal, Julian and Billy’s mum. Her filthy mouth and Oedipal connection to Julian are perhaps the best thing about the film. When Julian has dinner with a call girl and Crystal, the first thing that Crystal asks the call girl is utterly obscene, but utterly hilarious as well. She then goes onto compare the size of her sons’ penises (Billy’s was bigger, if you wanted to know). Her outburst is also responsible for Gosling’s first show of emotion later on as he shouts at the call girl. There’s only one other instance of Gosling showing emotion. You’d be mistaken he was auditioning to be The Terminator the rest of the time.
“You can’t see what’s good for you, so it’s better that you don’t see”
Of course, being a Refn film, there is plenty of ultraviolence to behold, if you are into that sort of thing. Arms are chopped off with reckless abandon (usually by Chang). Chang initiates a torture that rivals anything in ‘Hostel’ or ‘Saw.’ The neon-soaked Bangkok is a nightmare of blood and gore. However, the violence has little meaning or impact. It may turn a stomach or two, but you’ll be too busy trying to figure out what’s going on and why you should care about it. Yes, the violence is meant to bolster the major themes of the film, such as revenge being a never-ending circle and the (in this case literal) Freudian desire to return to the womb. But when the characters are either unlikeable, undecipherable, or just plain boring, why should we care about the themes surrounding them? Chang maybe the ‘God’ of the title, distributing vengeance like The Old Testament God. But why should we have to sit through several scenes of him singing? Why does he kill some people, yet lop other’s arms off?
Maybe it’s a case of self-torture, but I’m strangely glad I watched ‘Only God Forgives.’ You wouldn’t think it, would you, after what I’ve just written about it. But in this world of endless franchises, sequels, reboots, requels, prequels, and safe Hollywood blockbusters, it’s delightful to see something completely different. On a third viewing, I may come to terms with the lack of dialogue, lack of story, and reliance on imagery above anything like character development. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate the film! But a third viewing will be more than a few years away. I’m not sure I could endure the tedium of this film again. It may present its major themes on a platter of violence and silence, but we have to have a reason to care about the major themes. Unfortunately, Refn and Gosling give us little to care about.
VERDICT: 3/10. A ponderous film that is content with staring at its navel and loading the screen with symbolism rather than giving the audience a compelling narrative. ‘Only God Forgives’ is a challenging watch, but for all the wrong reasons.
What did you think of ‘Only God Forgives?’ Leave your thoughts/comments below!