Immediately comparing Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives to his previous film, Drive, is inevitable and unavoidable. And why shouldn’t they be? Same director, same star, same style of cinematography, same brooding violent atmosphere, etc. At least that’s how it seems on the surface, until you actually watch Only God Forgives.
I guess the plot of this film is fairly straightforward. Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy are in the business of underworld crime in Bangkok, Thailand. One day, Billy decides to do some pretty terrible things to a 16-year-old girl, and a sadistic police officer forces the girl’s father to do some pretty horrific things to Billy. Then Julian and Billy’s mom shows up, she starts trouble with the cop, and then the cop goes on a rampage. I’m not sure the film ever really comes to a distinct resolution. Yeah. I think that’s about it. Stretch that out to 90 minutes, but make the pacing slow enough to feel like 110 minutes, and you’ve got Only God Forgives.
The cinematography is really, really good. I don’t know if I can call this the best photographed film of the year, because this year has had some good examples so far, but this is definitely in the top five (probably top three even). The movie looks amazing. I loved the framing of basically every shot in the entire thing. Almost every shot could have qualified as a brilliant looking still photograph. And the colors were eye-popping and, as odd as it is to say, the cinematography was almost so interesting that it made the film extremely watchable despite its shortcomings. Like, I just wanted to see what the next shot was going to look like, even if I wasn’t always enjoying the film as a whole.
Because, I mean, the film is just so god damn weird… Characters just drift around, looking sad, and breaking into violence. That happened a lot in Drive as well, but it was also balanced with happier scenes, and some tremendously tense moments (with a lot of great music cues). The violence in Drive seemed justified, and also with emotional consequence. But it just sort of happens all the time in Only God Forgives, and with no real investment in why I should actually care about it. The characters in Drive actually interacted with each other. They contributed to a story, simple as it was, that actually moved the film forward. The characters are actually people who you care about, and are invested in. Even the bad guys! Only God Forgives, on the other hand, has a story that isn’t progressed much by anything, especially the characters. There are just so many scenes that not only don’t move things along, but almost take back the attitude of the previous scenes. It’s like Refn had some great visual ideas to put in a film (and they are great), but then tried to make a fully realized movie based solely on the cinematography, and it just doesn’t work…
It’s almost a mish-mash of several other weird movies. The slow-moving camera down the brilliantly designed sets are straight out of a Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier film (maybe even, dare I say it, a Kubrick film?). I mean, it’s not quite as messed up as Enter the Void, but it has the same bizarrely brutal violence as Irreversible. Remember that one painfully long scene of Carey Mulligan singing in a lounge in Steve McQueen’s Shame? (haha, nevermind, no one saw Shame…) Well, Only God Forgives has *two* extended lounge singing scenes! You’ve been put to SHAME, Shame! [OK, ok, I won’t pun that stupidly again, I’m sorry, I’m almost done anyway] A lot of the gory violence was just short of a Cronenberg film, too. Especially that one scene where Ryan Gosling puts his hand in the… …uh, well, it’s hard to describe I guess, because I had no idea why he was doing it or what it meant. Again, this movie is weird.
I suppose I didn’t *hate* Only God Forgives and its endless supply of peculiar behavior. But that’s because I’m kind of into watching this weird shit. Though, I could see how every single person I know could watch this movie and hate it into the dirt. It’s not a likable movie. It has no likable characters. It has a bare-bones plot. There’s almost no dialogue. But it has this undeniable insanity to it that appeals to me in some backwards way. I wouldn’t suggest watching Only God Forgives. I can’t in good conscience send anyone in its direction. So if you end up watching it some day, and you hate it, and you want someone to get revenge on for your wasted time; just remember that I told you *not* to watch it! Even if I personally thought it was kinda watchable on an offbeat, strange level. Let’s just say that it made more sense than The Tree of Life.
6 out of 10