Cinematic Releases: Only God Forgives

Yes, I'm going to compare this film to Drive. Get over it.

Drive is a masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned. Nicolas Winding Refn is a master of subtlety that is exceptionally rare in Hollywood, joining the likes of the Coen brothers... and that's just about it, really. Refn and the Coen's can manipulate timing and silence in a way that can hypnotize and fascinate in otherwise deceptively basic scripts such as No Country for Old Men and, again, Drive, where if written proficiently can illicit little thought-adventures in the more eager of movie-goers who will know exactly what a character might be thinking without having to say or show a damn thing. This is an example of film making at its absolute finest, and yet is an especially difficult quality to illustrate to someone or even detect.

I get the impression Refn was trying to do this with Only God Forgives

From my perspective, he came up short this time. Most of the ingredients are there. Gorgeous and careful cinematography joined with immaculate and vivid set design make Only God Forgives a rich visual delight. The music, though not as sweet as the eye-candy, compliments the mood very well with a subtlety that matches the ebb and flow of the script and direction. The tale is bloody, and at moments, brutally gratifying.

However, not necessarily the gory spiral of revenge plot itself, but the characters within it are wholly ill-developed, making it nearly impossible for the audience to latch onto any exciting forward momentum. It's intentionally unclear where each character's roots are. While Refn employs his typical let-the-silence-speak-for-itself routine, it falls flat here because when we're left to simmer in those many threads of hushed moments, there's almost nothing at all left for the audience's minds to chew on while we're left staring at an actor, who's, well, staring at someone or something else which often lead to unintentionally goofy scenes.
Clearly inspired by Lynch, Refn takes us back a few years when he made Valhalla Rising, the surreal Norse mytho-flick, and rekindles his love for dreamlike cuts and metaphors. While this is a welcome addition to the film, it only ensures to further distance itself from the audience, again, leaving us hanging to put the pieces together -- which I love in films -- but, again, these types of sequences are better left to a meatier script which we could use as a fun treasure map to uncovering the films secrets.

But, what secrets?

There isn't anything to be said, really. The characters are terribly plain, save for one amusingly odd and cruel Yin to Gosling's Yang. Yeah, Drive has a pretty thin plot, too. But what Drive's script did was give a reason to care. It gave us characters we could know even when they weren't saying anything. Only God Forgives has very little of this and adds up to equally limited tension -- just blood and pretty colors. 

Maybe I expected too much out of Refn after Drive? I liked Only God Forgives. It has a stimulating view, oddly funny (if unintentional) with a few perverse, psychological thrills sprinkled throughout the gruesome drama. Despite my slight disappointments, I highly recommend any curious movie buffs or, likewise, Refn fans, no doubt give it a shot. You common folk, however, should steer wide of this one. Yeah, Ryan Gosling's hot, and blood and stuff, but trust me when I say, you'll be left crooked-browed and bored.

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-review by J.G. Barnes