In context of his filmography, it is relevant to know that Nicolas Winding Refn intended to make Only God Forgives prior to his last film. On the most immediate and direct level, this is significant for the unsuspecting audience members who were drawn in by the much more commercially accessible Drive. It carries another significance for those already familiar with the filmmaker’s work, as Refn’s style and approach to storytelling has developed and matured out of the Tarantino-inspired postmodern Danish gangster film which put him on the map in the mid 1990s.
Despite the violent content which many critics have bemoaned, I actually found Only God Forgives to be quite restrained. Those who aren’t complaining about the violence will surely whine about the slow pace and sparse dialogue. This would not have been an issue were it not for the stars attached, specifically Drive star Ryan Gosling. Although I can certainly understand the reasons for an image-driven style of filmmaking, this particular attempt likely would have been much better received had it been made after Valhalla Rising rather than Drive.
As complex as Only God Forgives is, the storyline can be summed up rather quickly. Gosling is at the forefront of the narrative as Julian, a drug dealer running an underground boxing ring in
enact revenge when his brother is murdered. This is not truly a revenge film,
however, and Julian’s thirst for revenge is hardly his own. Julian’s brother
(Tom Burke) is a despicable human being. In the few moments we spend with him
prior to his death, he assaults a brothel owner, harasses a room of
prostitutes, before raping and murdering a pubescent girl. It is no surprise that Julian is
willing to let his brother’s death go unpunished, until the arrival of his
foul-mouthed mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Spewing hate from every
orifice, even in the direction of her only surviving son, Bangkok, seeks revenge on the man responsible
for the death of Billy. Crystal
Billy is killed by the father of the girl he raped, but the man responsible for his death is a frightening police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who dispenses justice as though he were God. Religion and spirituality is a huge part of the film’s narrative, and Chang is an untouchable character of Old Testament rage, wielding a sword to take off limbs or end a life as he sees fit. Fans of traditional revenge films should understand that Chang is a character of immense metaphorical meaning, and Julian taking him on is often as futile as shaking fists at the sky to fight God.
In some ways, you could certainly argue that Only God Forgives is evidence that Refn has continued in a similar path as Tarantino, pillaging and combining elements of beloved films for inspiration to create wholly unique experiences. The difference between Refn and Tarantino is the type of films that they reference. While Tarantino digs deeper into the frivolity of genre pictures (most recently venturing into spaghetti westerns with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained), Refn instead pays homage to cult films and artsploitation classics known only by dedicated cinephiles. The mere fact that Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky should provide footnotes in understanding Refn’s stylistic choices. Anyone unaware of who Jodorowsky is may be better off skipping this shocking arthouse puzzler, which is much more interested in imagery and metaphor than coherent storyline.
Then again, Tarantino also often chooses some rare cult classics to reference as well, so much that his largest fanbase may be oblivious to the original source material. The difference is a sense of humor, which reached nearly slapstick levels in Django Unchained. This helps to make the ultraviolence of Tarantino’s films more accessible, and perhaps this is what also makes Only God Forgives too relentless in its scenes of torture and abuse. The violence and gore is only a fraction of what was seen in the remake of Evil Dead (another film in desperate need of comic relief), but the disorienting nature of Refn’s Only God Forgives seems to compound the effects of the more harrowing sequences.
As is the case with any Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, Enter the Void) or Jodorowsky film, you may leave the theater hating Only God Forgives, but there are images which will be taken from the viewing experience which will stay imprinted in your mind far longer than all of the blockbusters you love. These filmmakers don’t make films for a Friday night date; they make movies for discussion and debate. Films that inspire us to think for ourselves, rather than simply being told; cinema created from inspiration and ideas, rather than as a product to be sold. Refn’s latest film may not be for everyone. In fact, I’m not even sure if I like it all that much. I do, however, respect him a great deal for choosing to return to a passion project of such experimental nature after having his first big break in
I might not have enjoyed Only God
Forgives, but with each minute I spend thinking about it, my appreciation
for it grows. This may very well be a masterpiece of cinema, even if it is a
failure as a movie. Hollywood
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10
Historical Significance: 8/10