Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn - Written by Nicolas Winding Refn - Produced by like 17 people - Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Byron Gibson, Tom Burke
(Excuse the long review, but this film is worth the discussion it presents.)
Nicolas Winding Refn's latest effort, Only God Forgives, is a film that has polarized its audience like no other. It was booed at Cannes Film Festival and, at the cinema I went to, at least one viewer stormed out of the theater at the midway point. Despite this, many have called the film a fascinating masterpiece, a contemplative work of art, the creation of a true auteur, etc. Indeed, even the works of Scorsese, Antonioni, Truffaut, Bresson, and Fellini were booed at Cannes. To an even greater extent than Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods, Refn's Only God Forgives, which chronicles a drug-smuggler's hunt for his brother's killer in the Bangkok underworld, suffers from what I like to call Cabin in the Woods syndrome. In short, most people viewing Only God Forgives for the first time will exit the cinema having little to no idea whether they liked the film they just saw or not. Understanding what exactly they saw will be the most pressing question on their minds. In fact, it should become apparent very soon into the film that director Refn does not particularly care whether you enjoy his work or not. This film is an incredibly uncomfortable one to sit through, amounting to a downright bizarre viewing experience. Much of Only God Forgive's 90 minutes is filled up with either prolonged staring or slow walking, both punctuated by scenes of grisly, graphic violence. Ryan Gosling, who plays the surviving brother Julian, is given perhaps a page's worth of dialogue for the duration of the film. Mostly, he is reduced to staring stoically at people, places, and things. Julian's mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas in rare form, has the most to say here and there's some heavy Oedipal undertones between the two, culminating in an incredibly unusual scene involving a hand being stuck into a bloody [be creative and fill this one in for yourself]. On top of that, you'll witness what may be the most uncomfortable dinner scene since David Lynch's Eraserhead.
I don't feel particularly remiss in not delving into the plot more than I already have because there's very little plot to delve into: brother rapes and murders 16 year-old girl, brother gets killed, mother tells surviving brother to kill murdered brother's killer, violence, karaoke, and a strange fascination with hands ensue. Under the direction of any other person, this film could have lasted less than half its running time, but Refn stretches out his scenes, shots, and pauses for the most artistic and hypnotizing of effects. As in his superior Drive, you'll feel like you're in a dreamworld where both people and time act in a heightened, ultra-slow fashion and you as the viewer are forced to become acutely aware of every detail. Unlike Drive, though, this film's dreamworld is the stuff of nightmares. Disturbing, graphic violence abounds, from metal hairpins being used as torture devices to eyes being cut down the middle with carving knives to more than a few behandings, mostly perpetrated by the menacing, god-like Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). The violence in this film is not for the audience's amusement, like the kind you'll find in your latest Bourne or Bond film. This is real violence, consequential violence, the kind that you don't walk away from offering a half-hearted quip and adjusting your lapels. There might be something to be said for the art in Refn's shocking content, but it's clear that the squeamish won't be sticking around to hear it. As un-watchable as the violence is, though, the film is aesthetically beautiful, the seedy underbelly of Bangkok soaked in neon reds and blues showcased through precise, heavily avant-garde cinematography. One day, this will make a damn good blu-ray.
As previously stated, Nicolas Winding Refn executes Only God Forgives without a particular desire to please or entertain the viewer. "People want the same thing," he stated in a recent interview, "but it’s the one thing they must not get because then nothing has changed." Whether people think the film is good or bad, he asserts, is not important to him: "It's more about the experience. The conversations are an example of success because then you know whatever you've done has resonated." If I am to judge Only God Forgives with Refn's criteria, I would say that he has mostly succeeded. His work is a violent, other-worldly, acid-trip of an experience, stripped down to the purest and simplest notions of film-making. Though it may not be what you or I want or expect when we come to the movies, the film will impel you to think if you allow it to. In sum, I cannot say that I loved Only God Forgives like I loved Drive, but I at least respect it greatly as a work of cinematic art.
See it: If you were a fan of Refn's Drive and are open to a darker, more polarizing and daring experience, albeit one that may cause you to become acutely aware of yourself as the viewer.
Pass: If the thought of art cinema, gruesome violence/cruelty, and even more painful pacing doesn't jive with you, or if you loved Drive for the tenderness of its main characters' relationship, for that kind of heart is entirely missing here.
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