Monday 16 December 2013

Only God Forgives

This is an odd one, as after watching Only God Forgives I felt like I needed to give it a second viewing. But after the second viewing I was not only just as confused, but also incredibly annoyed at how pretentious the entire film comes across. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn who previously directed the hugely popular Drive, Only God Forgives is a film that throws out vague themes, imagery and dialogue in the hopes that viewers will find meaning in it’s muddled mess of a story.

The build up to this film had people thinking it was basically Drive 2. I can't blame them I guess. Ryan Gosling, check! Nicolas Winding Refn, check! A mostly silent main character, check! Moments of extreme violence, check! I can imagine it right now. It's a couples first date and the guy suggests they go see Only God Forgives. “I think it's like Drive!” he says as they sit down to watch the film. 

An hour and a half later, and with the images of Ryan Gosling inserting his hands into a dead woman’s stomach and him also silently pleasuring a Thai prostitute with his hand (the same girl that he later makes strip in public), I can imagine the couple would never want to see each other again. So no, it's not like Drive. Not at all. And you know what? It never claimed to be, nor should it. This is a different beast entirely.

Only God Forgives follows Julian, an American running a muay-thai club in Bangkok. However, the club is really a front for a drug smuggling operation. After his brother Billy kills an under-age prostitute, Lieutenant Chang of the Thai police allows the girls father to beat Billy to death as a form of retribution. Then, once Julian’s mother arrives in Bangkok upon hearing about the death of her son, demands Julian kills the man responsible. Though hesitant at first, this decision to seek revenge spirals out of control quickly, and leads to Julian and Chang ultimately going head-to-head.

Visually Only God Forgives is outstanding. The film is beautifully saturated in the heavy soaked neon lights of Bangkok’s nightlife. This leads to a great sense of atmosphere, and it works wonderfully well in aiding Refn give us a peek into a dark underbelly of crime and violence within Bangkok. Throughout the film is shot incredibly well and can't be faulted on presentation, it's probably one of the best-looking films of 2012. The same goes for the score which is composed by Cliff Martinez, and contains some absolutely stellar synth tracks that make the soundtrack itself a must buy. The two tracks that stick out are “Bride of Chang” and “Wanna Fight”, both of which use the organ to a creepy and chilling effect.

OK, now that I've laid down some praise, here's my problem with the film. It plays out like an attempt at a pseudo-David Lynch type of film. It's a film in which Ryan Gosling speaks 17 lines of dialogue, looks at his hands for long extended periods, features oddly placed karaoke scenes and just seems so pleased with itself, so fucking pleased with itself that a percentage of people will call it a “misunderstood masterpiece”. No. Sorry if I'm genuinely missing the point here- and I could be, believe me- but it's completely up its own ass with pretentiousness. During the film I found myself in a daze thinking, “What the hell is going on?” and this is coming from someone who easily found meaning and a somewhat structured narrative from Mulholland Drive.

Though we all have different opinions, there will be many that found meaning and great interest in Only God Forgives. And you know what? Good on you. I'm glad it wasn't lost on all of us. But it didn't click with me, and I found myself increasingly lost in what it was trying to tell me. Yeah, I get it. His fists are his penis, and he's putting his hands into his mothers cut open belly because it has to do with being in the womb. But Only God Forgives just ends up meandering into a nonsensical mess of metaphors. I wanted to love it, I really did. It's a film of two parts- on one half it's a visually breath-taking film with an equally impressive soundtrack, while on the half it's a boring muddled mess of a incoherent story. A shame.

Only God Forgives can't be forgiven and is awarded a 4/10.

Denis Murphy

Only God Forgives at CeX

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