Only God Forgives - Review

Occasionally I walk out of a film wondering who the intended audience was. I appreciate that there are certain niche markets and that not every film has to have a broad appeal. But sometimes I come across a film that is so acidic and obtuse that I honestly can’t believe it exists. Only God Forgives, the latest offering from Nicholas Winding Refn, is a darkly disturbing, often offensively violent experience which edges closer to an art installation rather than a cinematic journey. I can admire this film it on a technical basis but I wouldn’t go as far as to say I enjoyed it.

Set in Bangkok, the film explores the world of a drug-dealing family as they go to war with the police over the murder of their son. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is forced by his repulsive mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to hunt down his brother’s killer not knowing that his actions would unleash dire consequences in the form of sadistic police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered for brutally beating an underage prostitute to death, so we aren’t exactly dealing with fine upstanding citizens. It’s a battle between despicable drug dealers and renegade police. I found it difficult to sympathize with either side and ultimately was just left to witness the ensuing carnage unattached and unmoved. 

In terms of performances, Ryan Gosling is once again doing his less-is-more technique which is comprised of intense staring and minimal dialogue. It’s as if he was picking up from where he left off in 2011’s Drive which was also directed by Winding Refn. Gosling brings a glimmer of vulnerability to the role, hidden just behind the macho front he’s forced to wear to appease his mother. Kristin Scott Thomas has the unenviable task of delivering lines clearly calculated to shock and offend. Ultimately her efforts only amounted to some colourful language and inappropriate emotional responses. I did like that she was made up with a prosthetic nose in a similar way to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, which conveyed the idea that she had been ravaged by one too many cosmetic surgeries, kind of appropriate for such a vain and narcissistic character. Vithaya Pansringarm was extremely effective as the unrelenting police Chief with the unorthodox interviewing technique, which is to say he likes to hack peoples’ hands off with a katana blade. Pansringarm oozes restraint and power, every single movement appears to be considered and deliberate. 

This film is exquisitely shot. There’s no simpler way to put it. I loved the use of shadows to conceal certain violent scenes and red and blue filters to complement the mood. Winding Refn at times seemed to be playing a game of chicken with the audience, pushing scenes to the point where they became excruciating to look at, daring us to look away yet somehow mesmerizing us. I liken his style to that of Stanley Kubrick, since he fills the screen with images that are difficult to digest yet scream discipline in the craft. 

Despite how beautifully crafted it is, Only God Forgives suffers from a major case of style over substance. It’s an easy criticism to throw at the film but I’m struggling to find to a more apt description. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the characters, I didn’t find the plot particularly engaging and I came out feeling like the film thought it was somehow smarter than me. None of the scenes of violence carried great weight thematically – sure they looked fantastic and impressed me like a magic trick does, but I found myself being very aware that I was watching a screen, never truly being immersed. 

I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone I know only because I think they’d never ask me for a film suggestion again. Only God Forgives is in selected cinemas from the 18th of July, if you agree or disagree with my review feel free to leave your comments below.


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