Two years ago, director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling came together and delivered what was arguably one of the best films released that year, Drive (which was in my list for the top films of 2011). It was the complete opposite of everything we usually associate with the typical Hollywood crime drama and because of that it resonated with us and still continues to resonate two years later as its fanbase continues to grow.
With such a universally praised film under his belt, expectations for his follow up were immensely high to say the least. So when it was announced that his next project, Only God Forgives, would not only be re-teaming him with Ryan Gosling, but would also be exploring the familiar territory of the criminal underworld yet again, this time in the visually stunning landscape of Asia, most were expecting something along the same lines as Drive but with a bit of a foreign twist. Oh how wrong we were…how wrong we all were.
Fans of Drive will instantly notice the same filmmaking sensibilities that helped set that film apart from all others and made it an instant classic. The deliberate pacing, the almost non-existent dialog, the sudden bursts of violence and the hypnotic soundtrack all return. As crazy as this may sound however, somehow Refn has turned every positive about his previous work into a glaring negative this time around.
The pacing now feels sluggish despite its brief 90 minute runtime, the many scenes with characters standing and staring at each other or off into the distance for minutes on end with nary a word said now feels frustratingly obtuse instead of insightful and the violence is now used to shock us instead of punctuating a tense moment that has been building to a boiling point. The only thing that remains the same is the brilliant soundtrack which is married to the film’s admittedly gorgeous neon lit color palette, neither of which is enough to salvage it from its other glaring flaws though.
The problem here is clearly having the narrative taking a major backseat while Refn relies too heavily on visuals and overt symbolism to carry the film. Refn himself has stated in interviews that his vision for this film was to present it as though the story is being told through the eyes of a person on an acid trip. Well, mission succeeded Mr. Refn, your film is indeed beautiful to look at, has sporadic moments where reality seeps through the cracks, feels disjointed but thinks it is being transcendent and ultimately doesn’t make a lick of sense by the time it ends. Yep, exactly like an acid trip.
If one were to attach a synopsis to Only God Forgives, it would likely be something to the effect of a highly immoral man is killed, his queen bitch of a mother comes to town to seek revenge for his death and instructs her estranged younger son to hunt down and kill those responsible. Simple enough, but Refn has done the impossible. He has miraculously turned a simple revenge thriller into one of the most overly complex and hindering film experiences in recent memory. How did he achieve such a feat? Not easily, that’s for sure.
First of all you have a series of random scenes that are interspersed throughout the film that have absolutely zero context for anything happening in the greater story. Scenes of Gosling hanging out in what appears to be a gentleman’s club where he hangs out with this hooker…sometimes, that maybe he wants to be his girlfriend…but gets angry at her and screams for her to take off her clothes in the middle of the street. She is in a lot of scenes, but since Gosling says maybe 20 words the entire film and she somehow manages to say even less, you have no idea what either means to the other, or if it even matters…which it probably doesn’t.
The storytelling in Only God Forgives is a mess, plain and simple. Motivations are all over the place, Gosling’s mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) clearly hates him, but hints towards a possible incestuous relationship with him that never gets resolved, which just feels odd and distracting. In between the random scenes of Gosling beating up strangers in a club for no apparent reason and him standing in front of a closed door over and over again, we are also privy to what can only be described as the film’s villain character, the police officer/chief/captain, whatever you want to call him, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who we get to see walking to a lot of places for no apparent reason other than to see him walking.
Oh, and don’t forget the karaoke nights where he sings in front of a bunch of other cops and/or bad guys which comes out of nowhere and seems to be completely pointless. Some may try to defend it as a style choice or Refn trying indirectly to make some sort of observation about death, violence and the mundane. But yeah, if you are feeling lost right now then you are starting to the get the idea.
While the bad guys and good guys were clearly established in Drive early on, it is nearly impossible to determine who exactly is the person in the wrong here. Chang makes a decision to kill Gosling’s brother by allowing the father of the 16 year old prostitute he raped and murdered to kill him. So, is Gosling in the right for wanting vengeance? Is Chang actually a good guy? It’s impossible to tell and their actions continue to confound as the film progresses.
Just when you think that Perhaps Chang isn’t all that bad of a guy, in the film’s most graphic and nihilistic scene, we are given a front row seat to what starts out as a mild interrogation and ends up becoming this depraved act of violence as Chang mercilessly inflicts ungodly amounts of pain on this person for no other reason than to make us, the audience, wince at its depravity. What exactly is the point of showing us a close up of a man having a utensil stuck into his eyeball as it is ripped apart and he screams in agony?
Perhaps we aren’t supposed to know, perhaps that is the point Refn is trying to make, that there isn’t always a bad guy or a good guy, just areas of grey. That sometimes people act based on their instincts and aren’t connected to any one moral code of conduct. Regardless though, the film would still be considered a failure even if that was the goal of Refn because just about everything else is still a mess. By the end of the film, you will either be exhausted by it’s enigmatic structure or you will have lost interest and began checking your Facebook page.
It is unknown whether or not Refn actually wanted to make one of the most incomprehensible and unabashedly violent films of the year, but that is exactly what he gave us. As a fan of his previous work, Only God Forgives can only be seen as a severe let down and quite possibly one of the worst films of the year. Don’t let yourself be lured in by the pedigree of its star and director, just forget this travesty even exists and hopefully we will get a true follow up to that 2011 classic. God can only forgive him for bestowing upon us this offensive piece of film.