"Only God Forgives"
It’s quite possibly the most divisive film of 2013, and since its premiere at May’s Cannes Film Festival, Only God Forgives has been greeted with boos, walk-outs, and an array of scathing reviews. However, since its wider release July 19, in theaters and on several “on demand” platforms, the film has begun to garner some encouraging evaluations. Granted, it’s still a minority who find anything redeeming about the movie, and as more have the opportunity to see it there’s no doubt that other mixed opinions, interpretations, and occasionally quite visceral reactions are to follow.
One of the more virulent appraisals of the film came from critic Rex Reed. In his review titled “Unforgivable: Only God Forgives Is One of the Worst Movies Ever Made,” subtitled, “Ryan Gosling is the new ghoul of gore,” he states: “Gruesomely grotesque and pathologically pretentious, a diabolical horror called Only God Forgives may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five. ... Ultra-violent, demented, plotless, creepy, meat-headed and boring, this is nothing more than a depraved travesty of abstract expression that wastes the film it’s printed on. Get to the point, you say. What is it about? Absolutely nothing, really. Ryan Gosling, looking dangerously anesthetized...” It goes on, but I think the point is clear.
As this review does seem to echo many other sentiments regarding the film, taking it as my own personal springboard I’d like to comment first on a few of the adjectives used to negatively describe the film: “Gruesomely grotesque and pathologically pretentious” and “Ultra-violent, demented ... creepy, meat-headed.” I couldn’t agree more. Only God Forgives is all of these things (and more!), but none of these attributes necessarily make a bad film, just an unpleasant and difficult one. Not all art has to be pleasing to one's sensibilities, easy on the mind, and comfortably digestible.
Before attempting to further justify this film though, there’s the plot, a rather simple and, on the surface, conventional story. Gosling plays Julian, a drug-smuggler in Bangkok. His disturbed and disturbing brother is brutally murdered after he himself rapes and murders a 16-year-old. The brothers’ equally disconcerting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands to know who killed her son and seeks vengeance, vengeance that, she reasons, Julian should enact. Behind the killing, and head of the underworld orchestrating much of the chaos, is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian, no stranger to the seedy side of life here, must ride the fence of familiar responsibility and his place within this realm of depravity and crime. This is the basic setup for the film. Now, I’m not going to say that this plot is ground breaking in any way, but there is a plot, so there goes that argument. And in the performing of the scenes as part of the ensuring drama, the acting, to say the least, is certainly minimal. Gosling is mostly mute, brooding (see “thoughtful”), and does seem to be in a perpetual daze. Pansringarm doesn’t really need to do more than appear sadistic and potentially volatile at any and every turn — this he does. The only “performance” is from Kristin Scott Thomas, and her’s admittedly isn’t a great one, but it’s a memorable one. She’s crass, vulgar, obscene, and even at times humorous. When learning of what her son did to the young girl, she responds in a frequently cited line that, on the one hand is deeply cruel, but, yes, is still kind of funny: “I’m sure he had his reasons.” So the acting in Only God Forgives isn’t great. It’s not going to garner any Oscar nominations for its leads. (I get the sense that it never for a moment wanted to.) But these are caricatures, not necessarily characters. They’re crime film types – hence the overtly self-conscious tough-guy poses, mannerisms, and the cutting dialogue. They represent more than they are. This can be enough.
Stylistically, Only God Forgives is as expected. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is a tremendously gifted visual artist. Anyone who has seen his Pusher (1996), Bronson (2008), Valhalla Rising (2009) or his masterpiece, one of the best films of this century, Drive (2011), can’t question his formal craftsmanship. With Only God Forgives though, the argument is “all style, no substance.” Its style is certainly the film’s most notable attribute, so against this visual bombast the minimal plot and subdued acting is going to stand in stark contrast. But a film can be as much about a feeling, a tone, as it can be about people and what they do. That in itself is substantive, and that is what Only God Forgives does exceedingly well. From its neon lighting, to its camera placements, to even its geysers of blood-letting, there is nary a scene here that doesn’t at least look interesting. Put them all together and Only God Forgives achieves a sort of collective sensation of objectionable fascination.
That, of course, leads to the film’s grotesquery, its ultra-violence. Who can argue? The movie is incredibly violent. One torture scene is particularly harsh, and a scene at the end involving Julian and his mother is as baffling as it is unpleasant. So what’s the point of this graphicness? There probably isn’t any. It’s just there, it’s who these people are, and it’s yet another level of imagery to unsettle (which in itself can be a “point” of a movie). See this in contrast with the Evil Dead remake earlier in the year. The horror film is far more graphic, there’s far more blood shed, but yet, according to the critical consensus (at least as far as Rotten Tomatoes is concerned) it’s “fresh” at 62% positive. Compare this to Only God Forgives’ 36% “rotten” score. It must not be the actual violence of the film that turns so many off. They’ve seen gallons of more unrelenting blood and gore. Again, it goes back to tone and atmosphere. One may not like these aspects of Only God Forgives, but let’s not cop out by decrying the apparent violence of the film. It seems to me that, especially in this day and age, simply condemning the obvious violence is much easier than analyzing the manner in which it’s presented, the way, and the reason, and that I feel is what Only God Forgives has fallen victim to, and those questions are, in actuality, the more interesting concerns of the film. People don’t want to even try and wrap their heads around the more ambiguous and complicated aspects of the film (that may, alas, lead to positive commentary); it’s simpler to just dismiss because of the violence.
With all of this said though, I don’t mean to suggest that Only God Forgives is an exceptionally great film. It would barely crack my top five of the year so far, and it’s not even remotely close to Refn and Gosling’s accomplishment with Drive. But it’s a misunderstood film. It’s also one that I think is getting unfairly derided by critics. Why? I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with the film coming across as being “too cool for school.” It’s almost like the film, and Refn’s narrative and formal choices in particular, carry with them such disdain for any sort of established acceptability that people feel personally attacked by the affront. Reed used “pretentious” in his review of the film. As far as it being showy and overtly stylish, it is. But as far as it being guilty of pandering to artsty for arts sake critical judgments, it isn’t. In its languid pace, lack of dialogue, and abstract plot, is it really so different than the films of critical darlings like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr, Jia Zhangke, and, as Reed mentions, Refn’s fellow Dane, Lars von Trier? These are, to be sure, great filmmakers, but why the free pass?
In the days since its wider release, more and more positive comments about Only God Forgives are coming out. Message boards are attempting to decipher some of the film’s potential meanings and symbolism. Aside from being a good thing for the mere reason of getting more people to possibly watch the movie, these discussions are also further evidence of a film with more going for it than initially meets the eye. Anytime one encounters so much debate and such a polarizing reaction to a movie, I can’t help but feel the filmmakers are on to something. In this time of increased complacency, especially when it comes to the mainstream cinema, a film that enrages and engages has to be deemed at least worthwhile. For better or worse, a movie that gets people talking is a movie worth considering. You don’t have to like it (indeed, most will never like Only God Forgives), but to call it one of the worst movies ever made is unnecessarily exaggerated, simplistic, and naive.