Is it possible to still recommend a movie even though I’m about to trash almost everything about it? This is not a good film, but it is one that I still admire. If you haven’t picked up on the trend yet, I like when a filmmaker refuses to comprise and goes for broke in his or her mad experiment.
And Only God Forgives is definitely a mad experiment. Despite its dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the film more closely resembles a mash-up of the sensibilities of David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, and Seijun Suzuki. Refn is a smart filmmaker who knows why those filmmakers have been so influential. But he only borrowed their best bits without figuring out a way to connect those ideas. There are great moments in the film, but they add up to nothing.
I’ll start with my biggest problem – Ryan Gosling. His character, Julian, is absolutely worthless to the overall story. For those who don’t know, the whole movie is about how his brother was killed after he murdered a sixteen year old prostitute in Bangkok. He and Julian had run a boxing club that also operates as a front for a drug smuggling operation. After his brother’s murder, Julian’s mother comes in to scold him for not taking vengeance. Throughout the entire thing, Julian never reacts and never indicates what he is thinking. His character in Drive is Benjamin Disraeli compared to Julian. There is no arc to his character, and the ending is incredibly frustrating. Without spoiling it, the film ambiguously tries to pretend that he is redeemed by accepting his fate, but perhaps not really. It also seems to forget that he has participated in an act of violence that should lead to an even greater retribution. But no, the camera literally cuts away from him and the credits role. And that’s not even discussing the first act, which is so terribly boring that it has probably inspired many of the film’s negative reviews.
The film does not pick up until we meet Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm. He’s the police officer in the film that carries around a samurai sword and frequently uses it to graphically punish wrong-doers. In order unwind, he frequently performs Thai pop songs at a karaoke bar with his police unit in the audience. He commits many violent acts that do not seem to justify his goals of justice. He’s so obsessed with being a hero that he’s ceased to be a real human being. His scenes are the most interesting in the film because he is given actual motivation. Why is he doing what he’s doing? Why the samurai sword? What does he hope to accomplish by acting like the very criminals he hopes to remove from society? I was interested in seeing these addressed, but I left feeling disappointed.
I also liked Kristen Scott Thomas’ portrayal of Crystal, Julian’s mother. A lot of other critics have slammed her, saying that she will be the inspiration for many drag queens. But her performance reminded me a lot of Dennis Hopper’s cartoonish portrayal of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. She acts the way she does because she is a damaged individual. And some of the thing she hints at are frightening. Yes, there is dialogue that suggests she had an incestuous relationship with her oldest son. And yes, she humiliates Julian by insisting that his genitals were not as large as his brother’s. And she does this in front of his date, after openly referring to her as a phrase that rhymes with “some dumpster.” Again, I was interested in her background. Why does she treat people the way she does? Like Chang, she is acting the way she does to hide something.
But again, the film’s insistence that Julian was the main character prevents Refn from realizing the good elements he had to work with and wasting a lot of potential. Crystal, for example, is ultimately used as the punchline in a dime store Freudian joke. Every scene with Julian grinds the film to a screeching halt. It also ruins the pace. Normally, his character is shown just sitting around watching things happen. He has a blank look on his face and there is never any attempt to connect him with anything else. But boy does Refn try. He keeps the camera on him constantly – some scenes feel endless as we try to figure out what the point of Julian is. It does emphasize the beautiful production design, that soaks all the characters in a neon glow and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score. When the world is more interesting and beautiful than the characters inhabiting it, your film is in trouble. Gosling is a wonderful actor, which makes Only God Forgives that much more frustrating. You want a movie? Eliminate Gosling, make the film a clash between Chang and Crystal, go into their past, and use the padding in your film to help establish how everyone ended up becoming so violent and cruel. Only God Forgives introduces me to a wonderful neo noir world with some interesting characters. But then it decides that I shouldn’t be interested in them, and should only be focused on a boring plank of wood that thinks he’s people.
So, the film doesn’t work. It focuses on the wrong characters, has no payoff, and is seemingly obsessed with trying to prove it has a point. The pacing is so unusual that many will wonder whether or not there was even a movie that played. But it still has a head on its shoulders and there are just as many good elements as bad. With a little polish it could have been as great as Drive. I know many who will like it, and I certainly like the fact that the film at least had ambition. In an era when audiences are ignoring films that cost $200 million and are bombing horribly, Only God Forgives dares to give them an interesting world to explore. Too bad the guide is dull as a gray crayon.