Describing the reception of Only God Forgives as “mixed” would be an understatement. In fact, it seems, critics completely disagree in almost all aspects of the film. It is either brilliant and artistic or boring and unnecessary violent.
The director Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film Drive was universally considered a masterpiece with Ryan Gosling’s brooding depiction of the driver applauded.
Violence was also not foreign in Drive and with many other similarities apparent to viewers who saw both films, what exactly was lacking in Only God Forgives? And where did Wnding Refn seemingly go wrong?
It can be argued that the expectations after Drive were immense and the follow up film was trying to live up and surpass the stunning combination of colour, cinematography, music and story. However the “try-hard” nature of the film has let it down ultimately. Star Trek Into Darkness had a similar fate where the lack of positive feedback was grossly disproportionate to the hype that was born after the first feature.
Only God Forgives is shot with such care and attention which echoes directors like Stanley Kubrick. Each frame is perfectly composed and made to look hyper-real by the depth of colour and contrast of lighting. This unsurprisingly is one of the only points critics across the board agree is stunning and well produced.
The story itself is set in seedy Bangkok, we see the brothers Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) run a boxing club as a front for a drug ring which their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) heads. After the murder of her eldest son Billy, Crystal demands vengeance from Julian at all cost. The relationship between Julian and his mother is tense (in an almost sexual way) and abusive. Scott Thomas delivers most in this film and plays the ruthless mother and head of the drug ring brilliantly.
Julian meets the main antagonist, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an ex-cop and self-appointed avenging angel who becomes the target of the family’s revenge.
The main argument is that the film relies too heavily on the mise en scene and lacks an interesting enough plot. Character development is almost non-existent and instead, the void is filled with brooding, long shots of Ryan Gosling looking forlorn and the fetishisation of violence.
It almost feels like the plot is in itself a McGuffin, a device to drive the film along. At best it’s an excuse for creating each beautiful scene and at worst an afterthought scribbled in after the visuals had been decided.
In total, Gosling speaks 17 lines. No matter how well he may be able to express his emotions through his face (not well at all) it isn’t enough to raise any sort of empathy or dislike for the character. It is almost as if he’s the vessel where the actions of his mother and Chang meet.
Despite this incredibly negative sounding review, I really enjoyed it.
It may be because I was expecting exactly what I saw, beautiful packaging of what is essentially an empty box.
If I expected to have any sort of emotion raised, I probably would have been as disappointed as many others but for what it was, visual and aural porn, it was as good as it can get. Style came over substance here and that should be the tag line for this film.
In cinemas NOW!