DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn
FEATURING: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
PLOT: An expatriate American drug smuggler in Bangkok becomes enmeshed in an escalating cycle of violence following the murder of his brother, with increasing pressure from his revenge-minded mother and a persistent sword-wielding cop.
COMMENTS: The power of success is immense. For the filmmaker who receives acclaim for their work, the decision about what to do next marks a decision point of unusual gravity. Is this a time to pursue a longed-for passion project? A call to double down on the styles and tropes that first merited attention? A surrender to the siren call of mass entertainment? The choice speaks to a director’s very soul.
So it says a lot about Nicolas Winding Refn that, hot off the success of Drive, he went all in on a moody, bloody, glacially paced meditation on vengeance and justice. Refn renews his commitment to evocative visuals, bathing a dark and seedy Bangkok with stark contrasts of red and blue and framing his actors with an eye to capturing their place in the universe. But he does all this in service of a story that marinates in grimness, where everyone starts out bad and only gets worse, if they change at all. Refn’s response to success seems to be to hit back at the very things that brought it.
Refn displays a remarkable commitment to not doing anything that feels like the next logical choice. For a film predicated upon the twin impulses of sex and violence, he refuses to do anything that could be misconstrued as pandering to the baser desires of the audience. When he shows sex, it’s isolated and unsatisfying to everyone involved. When he shows violence, it is brutal. He frequently withholds the direct impact of this violence, but when he does let it show, he is unrelenting. In the most vivid example, a character actually tells people in the room to close their eyes and watch nothing while a scene of torture methodically unfolds. It could be a command to the audience.
This perverse contrariness extends to the performances of his actors. Gosling walks about in a perpetual state of resigned exhaustion, barely speaking (IMDb reports that he has 17 lines of dialogue in the entire film; this seems accurate) and appearing beleaguered and helpless even when he has clear agency. His counterpart, Pansringarm, is equally taciturn, but at least blessed with the certainty that he is in the right and backed with the force of the sword that always mysteriously seems to be at hand. At least he has karaoke to give him some release; the film frequently cuts away to what looks like a cheaply decorated wedding hall to give the policeman a chance to serenade a roomful of his underlings with a plaintive musical number. Maybe that’s why, when the two men finally square up for a brawl, Gosling fails to lay so much as a finger on his opponent. If only he’d sung.
Kristin Scott Thomas, on the other hand, seems to be joining us from another movie entirely. Arriving with bottle-blonde hair, leopard prints, and a hardcore devotion to vulgarity and crudeness, her nightmare mom feels like a breath of fresh air simply because of the change in energy. She is consistently emasculating with Gosling, utterly brutal toward his pretend girlfriend (she’s not entirely wrong, but, you know, social niceties), and openly dismissive of everyone else. Perhaps everything you need to know about her is contained in her much-quoted response to the news that her late son had raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl (and this after having been denied his previous requests to have sex with a 14-year-old girl and then the club owner’s own daughter): “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.” An argument could be made that every bad thing that happens in Only God Forgives is directly attributable to her, which may just be more evidence of Refn’s agenda.
Viewers were notoriously split when Only God Forgives came out. Audiences at Cannes responded with a mix of applause and booing. The critics’ score at Rotten Tomatoes is around 40%, just below middling but with enough raves to merit further review. Rex Reed hysterically labeled it “unquestioningly in the top five” of the worst movies ever made, which given his intense dislike for anything with even a hint of quirk should makes us think more charitably about this particular film (although we must take his assessment seriously, as he himself earned consideration for the list with the lone film in which he himself starred). Honestly, it’s easy to understand everyone’s confusion. The film is uncommonly well-made but extremely hollow and off-putting in its content. And there’s every evidence that this is exactly what Refn intends; love it or hate it, that’s exactly what he wants from you. It’s a strange ambition, but no one can say he didn’t earn it. After all, it’s not your forgiveness he wants.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“But as gorgeous as the film’s world and imagery look, Refn’s frustratingly slow pacing and wildly uneven tone are very off-putting; this film is throttled by the eccentricities of its creator. There are probably dozens of films that Refn and Co. are drawing inspiration from, but the references and/or homages are so esoteric it’s hard to estimate the number of people who would actually get them… The tone is a constant mismatch of high-brow film art and low-brow grindhouse-style violence that never coalesces into a discernible point. It’s everything arthouse haters mean when they talk about films that are ‘weird for the sake of being weird.'”–Kofi Outlaw, Screen Rant (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “a”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)