By Ray Manukay
Only God Forgives is a stunning misfire from writer / director Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s a work that is so substandard that it forces the viewer to rethink Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed work in the films Bronson and Drive. The movie’s characters and plot oozes such self hatred, literally and figuratively, that one wonders why anyone associated with the film would even bother to tell the bleak story.
The razor thin plot of the film concerns a drug smuggler in Bankok named Julian, played by Ryan Gosling. Julian is dealing with the repercussions of the killing of his murderous, psychopathic older brother. When his brother’s death is tied to a vigilante, ex-champion, muy thai boxer, cop, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, Julian struggles to take action in the face of his moral conscience, as well as the pressures of his vengeful mother. (A wasted solid performance from Kristin Scott Thomas.)
The temptation is to point the blame on the weakness of the script. The dialogue is stylistically sparse. Laughably thin. Gosling’s character rarely speaks at all. His character arguably speaks less than fifty words in the entire film. One can theorize that he’s the strong, silent type but his character is not the only one which fails to talk. There is so little dialogue in the piece that one is tempted to call the film a silent movie. Most of the story is told through longing looks and unflinching stillness.
But to single out the script as the main weakness of the film would be unfair . There is plenty of blame to go around. There is also the uninspired performances, snail pace, unlikable characters, lack of humor and absurd, stylized movements.
The only redeeming qualities of the film is the gorgeous cinematography and scenic design. But even that can’t be enjoyed when the hyper-violence and brutality make the events taking place in the story almost un-watchable. I’m not oppossed to violence in film. But this movie features unjustified and excessive graphic violence which turns the proceedings into almost a satirical joke of brutality in film. And when there is no violence taking place in the movie, the performers move in such a measured, paused, stylized way, which brings to mind bad Japanese Kabuki, that it turns the blocking into something absurd. The inspiration is obviously Kubrick, but it comes off as laughable and ridiculous to the point of almost parody. Even the sound design can’t be spared of ridicule. The frequent unsheathing of the cop’s machete is so indicating that it comes off as excessive and unintentionally humorous.
Of course the film’s failures isn’t much of a surprise. Considering that the buzz of the film coming out of Cannes was that it was arguably the worst movie of the year. Critics and audiences have almost universally dismissed the film as an unmitigated disaster.
A sentiment that I can’t argue with. But the film is such a mess that one can’t help to think that there might be some method to this misfire.
One wonders if Only God Forgives is a creative exercise in finding an artistic rock bottom. The film’s story features not one redeeming character. There is no humor in the piece and there is no joy in any of the performances. The movie feels like the work of a self hating artist trying to reinvent himself. A director desperately trying to carve out a clean slate for himself. An artist attempting to free himself from the pressures of his previous critically acclaimed work in order to find his true voice.
Of course that’s just a working theory. Sometimes bad is just bad. Only God Forgives is all kinds of bad and a monumental disappointment from a seemingly talented and gifted young filmmaker.