According to the Bible, our sins can be absolved by repenting and honestly regretting those actions you’ve made in your life. Only then will God forgive you and allow you passage into heaven. Now, I’m no theologian (hell, I’m a Phage), but that sounds a sweet deal. You can do literally ANYTHING you want in life and get access to the easy (after)life. I always question this logic when talking with genuine theologians, as surely there has to be limits on the depravity that you can commit in your life. Stole a packet of sweets from the local shop when you were 6 years old? OK, fair enough… that can be forgiven. What about stealing the packet of crisps and force-feeding them to someone with a sweet allergy, causing them to get horrendously ill… still forgiveable? Maybe… But what about committing genocide with those sweets? Can that be forgiven? They must be some pretty bad ass sweets… that’s for sure. But the logic is flawed, surely? Why this lofty pre-amble? Surely it’s obvious? Only God Forgives is out… does it make me worship at the altar, or should it repent for sinning against my eyes and ears?
Only God Forgives is the “follow-up” to Drive, insofar that it stars Ryan Gosling and is from the same writer / director, Nicolas Winding Refn. Let’s get one thing clear here: I loved Drive. I thought it was powerful, wonderfully shot and had a great display of acting from all in the cast. It was probably my highlight of 2011. It’s a polarising film though, no doubt about that. For every Phage that loved it, there are probably two that despised it, or at the very least failed to “get it”. How does Only God Forgives look in comparison? Chalk this up as another polarising slice of cinema…
With the US getting this film a few weeks ahead of the UK, I was already (accidentally) primed for what to expect. Reviews flooded at me, and they lurched between “cinematic gold” to “crushingly disappointing”… But I went in thinking “I know better than those guys, surely they missed the point of the film?” After all, the moody trailers looked fantastic and I know what to expect from Refn… but I was disappointed. Brutally so.
Before I start tearing into the flesh of this cadaver, let’s dance over the plot. Only God Forgives follows Julian (Ryan Gosling), who works / runs a Thai Boxing gym out in Bangkok. His life gets flipped when his brother is murdered… after raping and killing a 16 year old sex worker. Their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) immediately flies into Julian’s life and sets about trying to get revenge for her dead son. And the only revenge applicable here is “eye for an eye” – she wants the head of whoever was responsible for this. “Whoever” just happens to be a member of the local police force, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm)… and he’s quite nifty with a sword…
It sets up like a standard revenge flick, mixed in with the grubby Bangkok underworld. It should be a gripping ride. But it’s not. Only God Forgives is not the film I wanted, nor expected. It’s a highly self-indulgent piece of cinema masquerading as art. The classic elongated shots on Gosling are there… you know the ones I mean: he’s staring into the middle distance and the camera loiters on him for what seems like an eternity. There’s also the occasional eruption of gore, as was the case with Drive. Then there are innumerable karaoke pieces that are meant to illustrate the current “mood” of the picture and lots of jumping and jerking around in chronology. All in all, it made for one bewildering and slightly confusing movie.
Now, the thing that struck me about Drive was Ryan Gosling. He wasn’t really someone that meant much to me back then. Some will gush about The Notebook, but to me – he was a nobody. Then we had Drive and Crazy Stupid Love… OK… I quite like this guy. But since then? I’ve yet to be blown away again. A lacklustre Gangster Squad, a disappointing The Place Beyond The Pines… and now this. Whilst there’s nothing bad per-se about his acting here, there’s also nothing to blow you away. He walks around a lot, stares into the middle distance and gets his ass handed to him on occasion. Indeed, I think the best acting in this film came from Kristin Scott Thomas as the boys’ mother. She was deplorable, foul and thoroughly dislikeable, which Thomas delivered well. But that’s also the problem with the film itself… everyone’s pretty dislikeable.
Every character is flawed here. There is no hero. There is no antihero, really. Everyone has an axe to grind and carries their demons with them. Hell, the plot revolves around trying to avenge the death of a guy who was a murdering rapist. It’s not a noble quest, and indeed the guy got what he deserved in The Phage’s humble opinion. So if you couple the flawed, under-coloured characters with the meandering, loose plot and sense of style over substance, you’re left with quite a hollow shell of a film. It’s odd that I couldn’t help but think of Guy Ritchie‘s Revolver at points, as that too was a case of a film getting too big for its boots and jumping the shark. It also placed an emphasis on neon lights…
Only God Forgives isn’t the film I was expecting. In fact, it probably tallies as one of the biggest disappointments of 2013 for us here at Film Phage. Maybe we held our expectations too high, or wanted a continuation of Drive. Simply put: this isn’t a good film, not for us at least. I’m sure it will polarise audiences, but there just wasn’t enough glue to hold this film together. It felt awkward and forced at times. Although it’s a misstep for Refn, we’re still eager to see what he’ll pull out of the bag next… just don’t let us down…
I bet you can already see the line we’ve been aligning throughout this piece can’t you? The ironic line involving the title of the film? Yes… I don’t know if God can forgive this film (ba-dum-tsh!). Whilst it’s not up there with genocide-inducing sweet deaths, we struggle to forgive this. Not that I have a God-complex; for I do not believe that I am God… I am merely a Phage. But in the cinematic realm, we have a high opinion of ourselves. But we will forgive it this one time… as we say… just don’t let us down again. Please? There’s a sweetie in it for you…
Ouch…..so you didnt like it? I liked it, but Place Beyond the Pines is fantastic!!!!!! 🙂
I just totally failed to connect with this film dude. So too did the entire audience in my screening. Lots of groaning and bemoaning on the way out. As for Pines… well, in comparison to this, it was a masterpiece! But why the need for the whole Dane DeHaan third act?
Very strange, but that’s what I expected from Mr. Refn and Gosling. Good review.
Hahaha, when someone compares a film to Revolver you know they really didn’t like it!! By the way if you want to see a couple of excellent performances from Gosling watch Half-Nelson or The Believer
Cheers for the recommendations dude – definitely going to check those two out! And yeah… When a film reminds you of Revolver you really do know you’re not onto a winner!
This is one that’s certainly spilt opinions, man. I’m on the positive though. Admittedly I wasn’t keen the first time I seen it but on a second viewing I caught the metaphors that Refn was going for and actually appreciated the film quite a bit for its boldness in going against the conventional narrative. It certainly had its faults and didn’t make entire sense sometimes but by the end of a second viewing, I thought the film did have some depth.
I can completely understand some people not taking to it, though. Very good write-up all the same, man.
I like to think I’d give it a second viewing… But I’m unsure. It just left such a bitter taste in my mouth and made me feel quite stupid – that I should have ‘got it’ when I really didn’t! Hearing you say that makes me think I should re-investigate! One thing – it certainly looked beautiful. Refn definitely has an eye for a good shot!
I can understand the negativity about this movie and you have some fair points. Personally though I was loving every second of it.