“Hey guys, if you’re expecting to see Drive 2, then do NOT go see this movie!” read almost every review for Only God Forgives. You know how I knew this movie wouldn’t be Drive 2? BECAUSE IT WASN’T CALLED “DRIVE 2”, YOU DIPSHITS. Okay, I get it, having Ryan Gosling team back up with writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn does give people the idea that we’d see something similar to the surprise 2011 hit, but whose fault is that? It’s not my fault, I can tell you that much. Despite not being a sequel to an awesome movie, with both Refn’s and Gosling’s track record over the last few years, the expectations were still pretty high. If you combine those two names and add in any sort of martial arts component and a title as badass as Only God Forgives, you can’t help but hope for the best. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a movie for a mainstream audience, but it was surprising to see a reaction to this film being so divisive amongst film critics, especially those familiar with the filmmaker. Naysayers be damned, I still made it a point to see this movie on the day it came out and at the first available showing, and boy, was it fucking worth it. My synopsis might seem a little bit spoiler-y, but it’s really only the first 30 minutes, but if knowing about that is too much, then don’t read it, okay?
I know how you feel, Ryan. It’s tough not even being able to walk down the street without women undressing for you.
As a low-level thug running a martial arts facility in Bangkok, it’s assumed that Julian (Gosling) gets his money from training fighters and hosting events. He’s had a lot of success, as well as his brother Billy (Tom Burke), but Billy gets himself into trouble when seeking new thrills and ends up murdering a prostitute. When high-ranking police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) finds Billy, instead of locking him up, he allows the prostitute’s father to take whatever revenge he so desires, resulting in Billy’s violent death. Julian’s initial reaction is to seek revenge, but when he hears the details of what Billy was involved in, he understands how Billy brought these actions upon himself. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) doesn’t accept Julian’s actions and takes matters into her own hands, trying to ensure that Chang is punished for allowing her first-born son to be murdered. Julian questions his allegiances to his family and to his own morals as he makes his way through Bangkok trying to track down Chang while Chang is trying to track down who might be trying to have him murdered. Visually rich and with a mesmerizing soundscape, the film explores the notion of morals, judgement, punishment, and loyalty.
If the Wolfman could pick the award for “Best Villain” and the MTV Movie Awards, it’d probably be a tie between these two. Or maybe one of the monsters from Pacific Rim.
It’s interesting to see that Gosling got top billing on this film when both Thomas and Pansringarm both have a stronger screen presence and are both terrifying in different ways. Thomas manipulates Julian, the younger son, constantly belittling him and letting him now how and why he’ll never be as successful as Billy, leading Julian to do things that he knows he shouldn’t be doing. Pansringarm is terrifying in a different way, with his calm demeanor while administering the harshest of punishments towards anyone who might have wronged him. As much as we want to root for Gosling as the “antihero”, it’s clear that, although Chang didn’t take traditional methods of justice, Julian’s character is clearly wrong in pursuing Chang in order to give him “the business”. Does “the business” always mean “fucking”, or can it mean anything? Let me be clear: Julian does not want to fuck Chang. He just wants to murder him to make his mom happy. Even though there are moments where Julian comes across as Gosling’s character in Drive, you really have to let go any sort of admiration you might have for Baby Goose to accept this sniveling little twerp with Oedipal issues. Sure, he looks good in a suit, but show some balls.
If you’re going to wear a white jacket around Baby Goose, you better be sure as shit that there’s a scorpion on the back.
One thing that I cannot stress enough about this movie is that it deserves to be seen big and loud. It’s sad to think that there are people out there who don’t have access to theaters that might be showing this movie and have to settle for Refn’s color palette on their TV or, dare I say, computer. Yuck. The cinematography is just as gorgeous, if not even stronger, than that of Drive in the way that it captures Bangkok after dark. Even when it’s not dark, it’s just as pleasant to look at. The way Refn frames all of his interiors is very Kubrick-ian in its symmetry, from its hallways to boxing rings to restaurants, the shots are fantastic. If what you’re seeing isn’t interesting enough to look at, Refn once again teams up with Cliff Martinez to deliver an exotic, ominous and haunting soundtrack that also has some karaoke songs tossed in there for good measure. None of the characters needed to say anything in this fucking movie and I would’ve watched it for another few hours. Can we get Refn and Martinez to do the next Planet Earth series already?
See, ladies? He’s not THAT attractive! He totally has a scar on one of his eyebrows! I mean, sure he’s handsome, I guess, but….yeah, okay, I’d fuck him too.
Good cast, great picture and fantastic sound, so this movie must be flawless, right? Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, but Refn does push your buttons as far as how much “art” one can take. My initial reaction was that the plot of the film really only served as a reason to shoot all of these sequences and have them make any sense at all, which is something I was totally fine with. It’s another pulpy tale of murder, intrigue, and bad people doing bad things to one another. The first act has a lot of surreal sequences involving Julian, and the audience needs to adjust to understanding if what they’re seeing is actually happening, if it’s some alternate reality, if a character is hallucinating or all of the above. I accepted these sequences under the “Artsy Fartsy Clause” and didn’t think too much of it, as the rest of the movie is relatively straightforward. I knew that there was some bullshit going on with hands (people being punished with their hands chopped off, Julian using his hands despite the viewer not seeing them being used, hands going into…orifices, etc.) but with my initial viewing, I didn’t want to read too much further into it. When I started looking up some of the things Refn’s been saying about the film, I can’t wait to go back and watch it again. Even though the metaphorical sequences happen less frequently than the narrative scenes, reading Refn’s views on the film’s spirituality, mysticism, and God, I think the movie is possibly taken too literally and needs to be looked at through a different set of eyes. Even though Refn has dedicated his work to Alejandro Jodorowsky, realizing that God Only Forgives borrows Jodorowsky’s storytelling techniques really demands repeat viewings to figure out what Refn’s trying to say. Yeah, okay, I won’t judge anyone who doesn’t really dig the movie for not accepting the Artsy Fartsy gauntlet that Refn has thrown down, because I understand that it’s not worth it to them. I, on the other hand, will watch this movie over and over and over again, and even if I never figure out what the fuck Refn is trying to say, it doesn’t really matter when a film looks or sounds as phenomenal as Only God Forgives does.
Wolfman Moon Scale