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Only God Forgives Movie Review - -

Only God Forgives
Reviewed by Tim Cooper on July 16th, 2013
presents a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: July 18th, 2013



Only God Forgives is the latest film from Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn. It also marks his second collaboration with Hollywood hot property Ryan Gosling. The plot revolves around Julian (Gosling), who runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. Julian’s mentally unhinged brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered in retaliation to his own crime of brutally murdering a prostitute. This brings the siblings crime boss mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), from the US with the murderous demand that Julian end the lives of the people responsible. Their search for revenge leads the two Americans through the violent Thai underworld and to a retired policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang has a severe god complex and the street level means to exact it. Neither side will stop until their vengeance is found in this visceral and bloody standoff in the backstreets of Bangkok.

Like all art forms, film will always be divisive upon individual critical analysis. It’s this difference of interpretation that makes the medium so exciting and varied throughout the world. Rarely does a film come along though that is almost completely polarising in its viewer’s opinions. Only God Forgives has critics and viewers the world over in split decision. Some praise Forgives as a worthy and darker successor to the 2011 Refn/Gosling critical hit Drive.  Others believe the film is an overly indulgent and excessively violent filmic insult to viewers and art house cinema in general. In comparison, Drive won the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes festival, while Only God Forgives was booed by the audience at the 2013 Cannes premier. Australian audiences had the opportunity to see this film early as a part of the Sydney film festival this year, and it proved to be a hit with the judges. The film took out the top prize as festival winner (a second time for Refn, who previously won with Bronson in 2008), but was still divided within the audience and critical opinion.

Those that didn’t enjoy Drive should avoid this film without question. Both films are made within similar aesthetics. Unfortunately, Only God Forgives brings nothing new or creative to the previously winning formula. Others that have been eagerly awaiting this actor/director follow-up should put their hopes on hold and lower their expectations. Gosling does little to dispel his doubters with the role of Julian. With only a miniscule amount of dialogue to work with his performance is completely dull and unfortunately directed to be so inexpressive. His uninteresting and underdeveloped character is often prone to violent outbursts against both sexes. Combining these factors make the role hard to relate to and ultimately, completely unexciting in delivery.

 The early promise the actor showed in films like Half Nelson (2006) and Lars and the Real Girl (2007) seems to be washing away in river of non-challenging roles designed to keep him on the top of the Hollywood A-list. His role in Gangster Squad (2013) was dull and his character in Crazy Stupid Love (2011) was a vacuous walking advert for unaffordable clothes. While The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) was a well constructed, ensemble crime drama, Gosling’s character was almost identical in nature and poise to his work in Drive. Those hoping for a solid (or even slightly different) performance from the actor in Only God Forgives will not get it. Kristin Scott Thomas has received praise for her work as Crystal, with many critics saying hers is the role that holds this film together. She does bring a confidence within the cold confines of her role, but it is not enough to keep the film afloat or involving. Pansringarm is a perfect choice for the character of Chang and adequately chilling, despite the simplistic direction he was given. It would have been interesting to see this main cast stretch their acting legs, by having more dialogue and freedom to act within a larger spectrum of emotions.

Much has also been said about the style and production design in Only God Forgives. Saturating the film in red across the lighting and set design suits the primal and dangerous mood of the film. However, it is also a typical and uninteresting visual approach, especially considering this film was shot on location in a country that has a lot more to offer on a large-scale screen. Through these faults, the one thing that truly keeps this film down is the pacing. Writer/director Refn gives himself no room to move with an incredibly thin script (the character of Julian has only seventeen lines for the duration of the film). Choosing instead to flesh the piece out with overly long takes and colour washed homicidal looks from Gosling. The cinematography is compelling at first, but after the first half hour there is nothing new or surprising.

For a film of this visual nature it is a further disappointment in the overall directorial execution. At a very short running time of only an hour and a half, it is a telling fact that the film feels like such a labored viewing experience. Refn has chosen to dedicate the film to Chilean born, Avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky: a personal icon for the director and a go-to director for the uptight over referencing cinema buffs. His body of work and approach to cinema seems at odds with everything on offer with this film. The El Topo (1970) director was actually at the Cannes film festival this year. Upon seeing DiCaprio on the poster for The Great Gatsby he exclaimed to one interviewer: “Prostitution! He should be ashamed.” So what would he think of a film of this ilk being dedicated to him in artistic respect? One can only wonder.

Refn came up with the idea of “a man who wants to fight god” while going through a difficult second pregnancy with his wife. While this powerfully bizarre notion is an interesting idea, the cinematic manifestation of this concept seems strangely wayward. Forgives carries an incredibly dark tone of both physical and sexual abuse. These are powerful themes that can make for gripping cinema, but Refn seems to simply toy with them without justified cause or proper implementation. Using these themes simply as character hooks do help explain the darker nature of the characters, but without any other layering in the script it is a cheap and immature direction to take. This leaves the more observant viewer experiencing a falsity of human depth throughout the film. The end result for Only God Forgives leaves the director’s original concept too submerged within his individual style, especially for such an existential idea to really be a true backbone for the senselessness that protrudes from every neon lit corner of this film.  


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