Film Review - Only God Forgives

Dan O’Neill 2013-08-10 6 min read

Only God Forgives is the latest film to hit the cinemas from the acclaimed director of Drive, Bronson and Vahalla Rising. The movie itself has picked up some awards along the way, such as the Grand Prize at the Sydney Film Festival. This stylish and ultra violent crime “drama” set in Bangkok landed an 18s certificate from the Irish film board. Myself(D) and my brother Nathan(N) had a conversation about the movie after seeing it separately on the opening weekend. We’ve intentionally avoided talking about the karaoke because we have no idea why it was there.

N: Fans of Drive, know this, Only God Forgives is nothing like the previous collaboration between Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. Nothing. So now that is out of the way we can get on to why this film, for me anyway, was a crushing disappointment.

Gosling as Julien; Picture from Wild Bunch

D: A crushing disappointment? I wasn’t going to say it, but I’ve got to agree. That’s maybe my fault though, because I went in with Drive still fresh on my mind. I didn’t expect the same characters or anything but I think I wanted a more fleshed out story - I found it very hard to work out the meaning behind it.

N: I have no problem with a film that you need to work at to try to find meaning in what the images represent and I enjoy when someone else points out something different when discussing a film. I have heard various possibilities on what each character represents in this but it is hard to bother because every character in this film is an abhorrent person. For instance, the brother that sets the story in motion is a murderer and a rapist.

D: Yeah, that got to me too - I couldn’t relate to a single character in the entire movie, and that’s important to me. The worst part of this though is that with the flaws that all of these characters had, I find it hard to believe that they ran a successful drug operation. How did they get this far in life? One thing I’ve noticed about it though is that I remember more of this movie a week later than some movies I’ve come out of the cinema liking…

N: It stuck with me too but for the wrong reasons. I was dwelling on it because I didn’t know what to think about a film with a lot of promise. It was edited like a dream sequence -

D: I really hate dream sequences…

N: - and it was jarring at first but then scenes make no sense. The girl who Ryan Gosling is seeing or something is on the bed and with a quick edit she has the door of the room open. It happened so often that I was unsure of what scenes were real and what scenes were happening in the story. I have never finished a film with as many questions. Why can’t Ryan Gosling’s character stop looking at his hands? Is it because he murdered his father “with his bare hands”? If so, why is his mother still talking to him? Was the father as bad as the rest of them?

D: Didn’t she say she asked Ryan Gosling’s character to?

N: Did she? I can’t remember but I can go on - Why does the cop have a sword? Why is that allowed? How can a cop keep torturing people? What is he representing? Is this telling us that if you are a bad person and go to Thailand, you will be brutally murdered by a cop with the strangest set of morals I have ever seen in anything? I’m not sure that I should have this many questions.

Vithaya Pansringarm as Lt Chang from Wild Bunch

D: I guess you have to suspend a little reality… What about thinking about it as just a over-styled short story? An insight into a 3 day period in the characters lives. We deliberately don’t know anything about what went on before, Chang’s story etc., so have to make our own back story for each of the characters.

N: I love suspending reality! Some of my favourite films ask me to do that and I like when a well made but slightly flawed film does something that encourages me to try to fill in a blank or two i.e. How did Bruce Wayne get from that prison back to Gotham City in the Dark Knight Rises… I also enjoy films that give me a short view in to a mad point in some characters lives, even Drive did that but this film is asking too much of viewers.

D: On the “style” of the movie though I have to say I liked some of the various shots. I disliked quite a lot of them - that hotel corridor, that dark room in the gym, all which featured more than once. But others - like the side on street shots or that one series of shots when Chang is training - I really liked.

N: I agree, the film looked gorgeous but all of Winding Refn’s films have looked gorgeous. From Bronson’s mad, vibrant monologues to Vahalla Rising’s stark grey landscapes, the guy obviously knows what he is doing. This is no exception and a large portion of the film looks excellent.

D: Yeah, there’s no doubting his pedigree and there is no question that he is an amazing director. I’m not saying that you can’t make a movie that focuses on a certain style without having a tonne of substance behind it - Drive is a perfect example of that.

N: I agree but I don’t think that this will be a problem. Just look at the blockbusters that come out over the summer months.

Refn and Gosling on set - from Wild Bunch

D: Where does Refn go from here? Because, commercially, it looks like this movie will be a disaster. It would be a shame for studios to avoid him because he is capable of amazing movies.

N: He won’t have a problem. None of his films would be classified as a big success and I think he likes that because he makes violent films that are filled with dark characters and you can’t do that with mainstream audiences. He is an exciting talent so I am still interested. I would hate to see him go the route of M. Night Shyamalan where a film will come out and studios will avoid using his name in the marketing.

D: I agree, but studios and producers etc will all want their money back. Speaking of Shyamalan - was this as bad a disappointment as The Happening? In my eyes - both had hugely successful teams coming in, tonnes of promise and then both did not deliver. The only thing I can say is that at least The Happening was interesting for the first half of the movie.

N: I would rather watch The Happening than watch Only God Forgives again. It is a better made film but it is not enjoyable in any way. Which is a big statement because I hate The Happening.

Pretty obvious neither of us actually liked the movie. Refn’s stylish approach to the story failed to grab either of us and we ended up confused by the plot and character arcs. The editing left us in the dark about what we were supposed to be watching. Hopefully not the downfall of a very promising director, who has clearly shown some amazing work in the past.