As soon as I read about the second collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling, I was ecstatic about Only God Forgives. The duo worked together on Refn’s now highly-regarded Drive and decided to team up again for another quiet, cool affair. Some months later when the film debuted at Cannes, however, the film was booed at by the crowd. How embarrassing for poor Refn! Here’s a guy who’s last work won him Best Director at Cannes, so he has so much to live up to in terms of material, and his film receives a symphony boos and a number of walkouts. Was this the reaction Refn anticipated with his ninth outing? Here’s what he had to say: “You know, great art—horrible thing to say—but art is meant to divide, because if it doesn’t divide, it doesn’t penetrate, and if it doesn’t penetrate, you just consume it.” Critics and audiences alike were definitely divided about Only God Forgives with its slow pacing, thin dialogue, and extreme violence. I told myself I would see the film no matter what. So I watched Only God Forgives with lowered expectations yet I anticipated something that was at least watchable, which was perhaps the best thing someone can do before watching any movie. Most of the time it’s impossible to do. But come on, it got booed at Cannes! What should anyone expect from this movie?
Here is a checklist of a few things you should expect: slow pacing, hardly any dialogue, and some graphic violence. Yes, these were the points that split audiences on the film and what will decide the fate of your 8 to 12 dollars. Will you buy a movie ticket to Only God Forgives, or just spend it on some McBurger Nugget meal? The choice is yours after I give my two-cents about the film. First, the synopsis. Ryan Gosling plays the role of Julian, a drug dealer who heads a boxing club in Thailand as a front for smuggling. Things get complicated when Julian’s mother arrives, begging him to kill the man who murdered his brother. This man responsible happens to be a terrifying corrupt cop named Chang who is no stranger to hacking up men with blades. It’s a simple tale of revenge that could lure in a hefty audience but…
Only God Forgives is definitely not meant for mainstream audiences. Drive on the other hand is Refn’s most accessible work to date, with its linear structure, charismatic performances and ultra-cool soundtrack. Although the bursts of bloody violence were shocking to some, people still let it go down easy. Only God Forgives provides images that are less tangible; audiences don’t know what is real and what’s not. This proves frustrating for some as I heard huh‘s and saw tilted heads among the people watching in the theater. For those who can watch and decipher symbolic sequences that are presented almost as if they are actually happening, the movie is not a difficult watch, as long as you can still handle its granny-scooter pace. In Refn’s perfect world, it seems, everything is in slow motion and nobody talks unless it’s absolutely necessary. Such is the case with Valhalla Rising, one of Refn’s earlier films that got a lot of criticism for being needlessly slow and tension-free. In Only God Forgives, characters sometimes move way too slow for it to be a realistic motion of the body. But again, this adds to the ethereal quality of the film. We legitimately don’t know if the movie is just trying to be cool, or if it’s set in some kind of dream land where reaction times are fifty times slower. Some will find it annoying, but I find it adds to the tension of some scenes. For example, when Julian first engages Chang in a fight, he circles around him, getting ready for a climactic battle. It plays out almost in slow motion, a trademark of Valhalla Rising, and gets the audience ready for the ensuing scene. It’s also worth noting that Gosling probably has about 20 lines of dialogue tops in the film. His character Julian is quiet, expressionless, ill-tempered, and fearless. It’s a truly uncharismatic performance but one that only a cool face like Gosling’s can pull off.
The “extreme” violence in Only God Forgives put off more than a few critics. I honestly believe the violence in Drive was more gruesome than in this case. In Drive, you see Ryan Gosling’s foot go through a man’s forehead as he stomps down on him in an elevator. The worst thing you’ll see in Only God Forgives is a man’s ribcage being sliced upwards and spurt out a little gooey red stuff. I find the violence to be quite dazzling. It provides a decent contrast against the quiet scenes of the film. My expectations in terms of violence were very high, actually. Somehow a rumor was spread about the film that it featured a scene of Ryan Gosling’s character being raped with a machete. I’ll be the first to tell you this: Ryan Gosling does not get raped with a machete and neither do any of the other characters. There were so many moments during the film where I thought to myself: “Oh snap! This guy’s about to get raped with a machete!” Alas, there was no machete-raping in Only God Forgives. In retrospect, the violence is underwhelming compared to what critics are saying about the film’s “excessiveness.” The one thing the film is excessive with, is style. Boy, does this film look gorgeous. An abundance of wonderful hues invade the screen with every frame. Most of the film takes place at night where the neon lights can shine bright, but there are also scenes which take place during the day. The daylight scenes are usually set in the rural parts of Thailand whereas the nighttime scenes feature more urban settings. It’s another nice contrast in the film that will give your weary eyes a nice balance of color exposure.
The acting in Only God Forgives is decent, given what the actors have to do really. Gosling’s only objective in the film is to make Julian look as expressionless and emotionless as possible. He keeps his emotions hidden to preserve his cool persona it seems, or maybe it’s something he did back in the states (which is referenced to in the movie) that has numbed his mind forever. I just think Refn enjoys having silent protagonists (except for Charlie Bronson) in his movies. Vithaya Pansringarm, who plays Chang (picture above), was the perfect casting choice for the character. He works as the man who sings Thai songs at nightclubs and cares for his sweet innocent daughter, while on the other hand, he is a merciless killer perfectly skilled with his sleek sword. The most surprising acting role in the film is that of Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s bitch of a mother. The moment we’re introduced to her, we can see that this woman is up to no good with her snobby attitude. She’s no stranger to bluntly exclaiming things. During a scene when Julian brings along a girl to meet his dreadful mother for dinner, she starts embarrassing Julian by talking about the size of his penis and calling his girlfriend’s mouth a “c*m dumpster.” She’s wicked but definitely has this strange power over her son Julian, like he’s being hooked to her with an umbilical noose. Lots of inferences can be made about Julian and his relationship with his mother since it’s obvious she’s the reason why he left the states and fled to Thailand. I’ll let you make your interpretations for that, though.
Like I mentioned before, Only God Forgives is not a film for everyone. The conclusion will have many frustrated and wanting more, because going to the movies so often plagues us to be solely content with obvious conclusions. I will warn you it is an open-ended film for those who are not inclined to enjoy movies with such endings. Those that admire open-ended films will be pleasantly surprised with the conclusions artful, symbolic presentation. The movie will move at a slow pace and there will be splotches of violence here and there. It may leave you confused. It may leave you intrigued. It may make you angry and push you to walk out of the theater but it’s expected for some. It’s a deep exercise in style for Refn, combining elements from his previous films while creating something new altogether. If it doesn’t penetrate you in terms of plot and characters, at least you gave your eyes a visual feast.