After having directed the excellent Drive, it was a huge surprise to know that Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie, Only God Forgives, was booed at the Cannes film festival. Moreover, the film critics were greatly polarised, as some called it a masterpiece and others trashed it. It currently has a 37 in Metacritic! I recently decided to buy this movie, quite fearfully.
Once again, director Nicolas W. Refn collaborates with Ryan Gosling, who, as in Drive (one of my favourite films ever) portrays the protagonist of this movie. This time, however, the plot is a more classic revenge story, as Julian (Gosling) will receive the visit of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who will request him to take care of the killer. Many people were disappointed because of the trailer, as it happened with Drive. Both of them show exciting action scenes, which gives an impression of being the typical summer blockbuster. However, both films are incredibly slow-paced and philosophical, not an entertainment-oriented action flicks.
If I had to rate this movie strictly for its visuals, it would be a ten out of ten. The photography is simply fantastic, every single shot is beautifully lit and the use of warm colours looks magnificent. Nothing negative can be said about the appearance of this film, it is an obvious step forward in N. W. Refn’s filmography. Cliff Martinez adds a mesmerising soundtrack to the mix and it results in a dazzling audiovisual experience. But that’s just the outside, the looks of the movie. The controversy has to do with the guts of this work, of course.
The script of Only God Forgives relies, almost solely, in symbolism. Every character, every moment, has a hidden meaning that must be understood in order to be able to enjoy this film. That’s incredibly negative, though, as this kind of metaphors should enhance the viewing experience, without being a difficulty. In this case, not understanding every bit could result in a feeling of absolute simplicity, as the story depicted is indeed, nothing out of the ordinary if not interpreted correctly. It doesn’t help much the fact that Gosling has less than 20 lines throughout the movie, either!
Another common criticism that the film received was the over-the-top violence it depicts. While the violent scenes, while few, are indeed quite disturbing. Towards the end of the movie, Gosling introduces his hand into a dead body through open wound, which is very explicitly shown on screen. As you may have guessed, that action isn’t simply for gore purposes and it does have a meaning, nonetheless. See what happens if you don’t understand it?
All actors are impressive throughout the whole length of the movie. Both Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas portray their roles perfectly, showing the right amount of strength and weakness the entire time. Nevertheless, the most brilliant performance was delivered by Vithaya Pansringarm, whose portrayal of a mysterious, mystic and powerful antagonist was, simply put, extraordinary. He didn’t get the credit he deserved, I would add.
Overall, it’s a risky movie that relies way too much in metaphors that the audience may or may not understand. And the experience is completely dependent on that. Anyone who doesn’t understand what each character represents, will not like Only God Forgives. Casual movie-goers may not enjoy what Refn has to offer this time, though, as its 90 minute length will feel like hours in this slow-paced and at times, pretentious piece of film-making. It seems to be a very simple story that struggles on keeping a proper pace and lacks a good script. However, once rewatched and interpreted correctly, it is a very interesting experience, full of thought-provoking philosophical ideas and clever use of the cinematographic language that should be watched by any film-lover, to be loved or hated. 8/10