Only God Forgives’ proves to be brutal film with misunderstood meaning
It wouldn’t take people longer than 30 seconds to type Nicholas Winding Refn’s newest film, “Only God Forgives,” into their search browser, float their mouse over any one of the film reviews, double-click and see that just about every major film critic from The Huffington Post to The New York Times wrote the film to ribbons. Simply put, they hated it. All of them. One particularly insulting review put it among “the top five worst films of all time,” another marked it as “pretentious macho nonsense” and one even went as far as to say that “it can’t be saved from itself.” The similarities from review to review raised a slew of questions in my mind.
Has the same director who was showered in praise over his film “Drive” suddenly fallen off the wagon, so to speak? Did he simply just lose his touch? Is it a mere coincidence that nearly every critic repeated each other (in a language not all that different)? Not by my standards. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what Refn did by constructing something so widely hated shows his artistry and brilliance even more. He doesn’t push the boundaries on experimental film-making. He blows them off.
I think a large part of the film’s controversy points out the fact that, in popular entertainment, we’re coming to a stand-still. The newspapers, in fact almost all of pop-culture, rate a film such as this on a traditional set of rules that all fall under one major guideline: the film should entertain. The story should be inviting. There should be a clear beginning, middle and end. Lots of dialogue. A clear message. Essentially, no viewer should be forced to have to do the one thing they pay up to $14 a ticket to avoid doing: Think.
However this sort of turn-your-head-off-and-escape type of criticism will absolutely destroy something as artistically ambitious as “Only God Forgives.” How can the art form of cinema move forward, move above and beyond the bar to find new, innovative ways of storytelling if its goal is to simply entertain? I’ll be the first to say it – it can’t.
Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” released in limited theaters and online viewing networks such as Vudu and Xbox Live, isn’t for everyone. The violence moves beyond most slasher films. The little dialogue that’s offered at certain parts of the film are practically placed on mute. And the characters played by Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas and Rhatha Phongam not only speak very little, but also avoid just about any relatable characteristic from actor to viewer. There’s nothing in this film to filter the pure and extreme terror. Nothing humanistic except for fear, uncertainty and repulsion.
Yet, those traits are a part of the human condition just as much as love and humor. If you’re looking for something with a positive message about human behavior, this film isn’t for you. What can be found in the film is the stuff of nightmares. A person’s most personal and terrifyingly grotesque moments captured on film in one 90 minute montage. The brainchild of something Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Gaspar Noe might create. Slow-spanning hallway shots with an almost virtuosic care for detail. A neon glow cast over Bangkok with an emphasis on the color red. A cinematography more like a hallucination than anything else.
What plot there is revolves around the death of Ryan Gosling’s brother, a child rapist and murderer. This sets off a horrifying chain of events, including the appearance of Gosling’s mother (Thomas) who calls for revenge. Neither character take into account the unstoppable and immoveable Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired ex-cop who hammers down justice with a sword like a Katana. Every character is metaphorical. Every scene is carefully placed. And the score and soundtrack are oddly bright, an intentional incongruity that makes the film even more haunting.
My bet is that this film’s ability to repulse will keep it around, especially in an academic setting like a film school. If you do take the leap, make sure to wear head-phones, keep an analytical mind and remember, regardless of what the critics say, the film was made for a reason.
5 out of 5 stars
Ben Rader can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.