The screening of Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent feature of Only God Forgives at the 2012 Cannes film festival was met with chants of boos and standing ovations. It has easily been the most dividing film of the year for critics and seemingly for audiences.
I watched it knowing this, it was both recommended to me and slated, dismissed as garbage. And I have to admit, the only real reason I wanted to see it was because I loved Drive so much. So I finished the film with mixed feelings. I can see exactly why it has divided opinion so aggressively.
First of all, I think a good place to start is how I watched Only God Forgives. I’ve recently moved from one streaming film service to another (not going to name names, unless of course they’d like to pay me for it! Always worth a try) and on the new service I’m using, they offer a synopsis when you rent your film. The synopsis was around 4 paragraphs in length. In retrospect the synopsis actually contained some of the most vital elements of the film, and if you need a synopsis to understand the film, then on some levels the film itself has failed. For example, one of the themes throughout the film was that Julian (Ryan Gosling) is empty, unhappy and unfulfilled by his criminal life (which there isn’t much indication of in the story) but actually Julian’s whole demeanour is blank and we are given no back story, no other ‘impressions’ of Julian to make any assumptions about his personality. In fact most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, all are void of any positivity, particularly Julian’s mother; Crystal played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Although she plays this well, the perfect vision of a mother from hell. This feeds into another fairly unsettling dynamic of the film; the unsubtle undertones of incest. To me, this seems to be forced in to add to the disturbing nature of the film. Crystal is as tacky as she is awful. The meltdown at the dinner table with Julian and his pretend girlfriend Mai is particularly nasty.
The plot itself is a tried and tested revenge story diluted down by lingering shots, unnecessary dream and flashback sequences. It’s actually fairly boring and in parts nonsensical because of the flatness of the characters. The blandness of the story is broken up by sporadic acts of horrific violence, which I think I have a high tolerance for, even made me look away in parts. It also acknowledges its own flaws. Julian believes that his brothers death shouldn’t be avenged because of his brother’s paedophilic tendencies whereas Crystal doesn’t care what her son did, she wants his death justified at any cost. And in all reality, anyone who trawls the streets looking for underage girls, finds one and subsequently brutally murders her should not be avenged in any way. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for anyone in the film, because the characters are all so flawed. Each character has a nightmarish quality which makes it impossible to empathise with them.
Having said all of this, Only God Forgives is visually stunning. Seriously, one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Nicholas Winding Refn is a force of nature with visuals in cinema. Drive was beautiful too. Each scene is carefully plotted, carefully choreographed to look as impressive as it can. The framing of scenes is exceptional, the use of door ways, light, shadows, buildings, windows, statues is mind blowing. It is truly a work of art. It’s a neon nightmare which mixes cultural symbolism and elegance of sharpness and seedy nightlife to create a stunning, rich visual explosion of sumptuous, gorgeous scenery. The music is not surprisingly, spectacular. Returning to another staple of Refn’s films, Cliff Martinez perfectly captures the mood and scenery beautifully with his scoring.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Only God Forgives, I did really want to like it, but it’s almost been made deliberately to be pretty horrible; which isn’t helped by the boring story. But simultaneously it’s unmatched by anything else this year in terms of sheer cinematic skill. Refn however is so focused on the visuals, unfortunately, his lack of ability to tell an equally exciting story is seriously damaging to the film.
- Sharm Murugiah’s ‘Only God Forgives’ Steelbook is a thing of beauty. (cultcollectiveblog.wordpress.com)
- Blu-Ray Review – Only God Forgives (thepeoplesmovies.com)
- Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn: Asian Buffet of Machismo (filmsheath.wordpress.com)
- Movie Review: Only God Forgives (blissingaround.wordpress.com)
- Nicolas Winding Refn: Art is best when it divides opinion (metro.co.uk)
- Only God Forgives (18) | DVD Review (close-upfilm.com)
- Only God Forgives (2013) (thefilmforumblog.wordpress.com)
- Only God Forgives (Refn – 2013) (ycreatives.wordpress.com)