Ryan Gosling and Nicholas-Winding Refn team up again following the 2011 hit Drive. Only God Forgives is a very divisive film with many peering reviews while other critics have snarled at the film also. What is more is film viewers it seems are also split in their opinion of the film.
Only God Forgives is a world away from the crowd pleasing Drive. While Drive had a good heart and characters at the centre of its narrative, Only God Forgives uses that same template of visual narrative telling but without much heart or characterisation. However, it is clear that Only God Forgives continues in the same vein as Drive with beautifully constructed visual shots and an awe inspiring soundtrack.
The film follows Julian (Gosling) as a boxing club owner in Bangkok. He is there with his brother Billy who goes out one night in search of having an encounter with an under-age prostitute. This turns violent though as he batters the girl to death and when police lieutenant Chang finds him at the scene, he manages to get in touch with the girls’ father to deal with the situation. He of course naturally beats Billy to death. Upon learning of this, Julian is hesitant in dealing with his brother’s killers. Yet, his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) flies over to Bangkok and demands that his son Julian takes action against police Lieutenant Chang. What follows is a trail of bloodshed and violence.
Only God Forgives is a difficult film to rate as viewers will see the film differently. The film itself is a slow moving frame by frame tale of violence. Some sequences don’t make a great deal of sense. Most sequences are beautifully shot and beautifully backed by the soundtrack. But the centrepiece of any film-the characters are existing pillars of the film. They are not the cornerstone of the film nor do they play a big part in it.
Gosling is slightly disappointing here which is no fault of his own. There isn’t much compassion or charisma from the character previously seen in Drive. What we see is a tortured soul who is going through the motions. Does he want to avenge his brother’s death? Not really. Does he want to better himself or aspire for greater things? Not really. He is a very much one note character in which you only see anger from the character.
I do though have to praise the performance of Vithaya Pansringarm-who plays Chang. He is a wonderfully created character in which he abides by justice by whatever means necessary. Brutal, uncompromising but compassionate and wise-arguably his character is the centrepiece of the film rather than Julian or Crystal.
That brings me onto Crystal. While she is a menacing presence throughout the film, I found that her character to be also one note and her scenes to be extremely disparate. You see, her motives while natural are over exaggerated and her character is also exaggerated. Ever hip movement to determine her superiority and every insult just confirms this.
The strength of the film lies in its art-house inspired cinematography. I would say this is the best shot film of the year in terms of flat narrative telling rather than technical such as Gravity. Every sequence is art. Every frame means something and every frame can be seen differently from each watching viewer. Its stylish and certainly prefers style over grounded substance.
Its a shame that its core story isn’t all that great. Its scenes are quintessential but the meaning behind them is lacking. The film itself is enjoyable if you are able to watch films without caring so much about the story. Its violence is graphic and grounded. Its circumstance and thinking of the film is not definite. I interpreted the film as a journey through maternal and physical relationships. Its these relationships that form the thinking of forgiveness, redemption and violence. Connected at these is Chang-the force of good, law and more importantly justice.
What You Should See It?
+Beautiful cinematography and photography. As arty as a film has been this year.
+Effective in its delivery. Though weak in its narrative, its overall product is an effective viewing,
+Excellent soundtrack. Neon inspired and soaked-the film compliments the soundtrack very well.
+The character Chang is very well acted, seen and his presence is formidable. I would say one of the best characters in a film this year.
Why Should You Not See It?
-The first act is slow moving. The rest of the film is still slow in comparison.
-The English speaking characters-Julian and Crystal in particular are perhaps subdued largely.
-The overall story and narrative is weak as a whole.
-The film is not for everyone. You could fall in love with the film or hate it quite easily.
Overall, I did enjoy the film as a whole. The film was steeped into my mind with is effective visual shots and brilliant soundtrack. Its actions and reactions in the film also are effective. But, the film is perhaps flawed with its main characters being weak and the story being a passenger to what is important. I am divided on the film. While its flaws are substantial, the film is by no means bad, terrible or a poorly mad film. The film is made for an acquired taste. Even violence fanatics will be found wanting with the film.
After much deliberation, I believe films should be rated on quality and enjoyment. Only God Forgives is a film that is extremely divisive. It is in part brilliant and in part not to my liking. Yet despite this, I will watch it again. Although the rating is high which I believe is correct, what I cannot do is recommend it as easily as something like Drive. ****