Only God Forgives Reviews
Not his best film, but greatly underrated.
Now, I've seen enough movies that go with or against the grain that I usually hope to see the latter, but when I saw "Only God Forgives" for the first time, I was mostly nonplussed. After viewing most of his other films though, it finally clicked. Refn is a Mario Bava fan. That was all I needed to know to see that this guy knew exactly what he wanted to do and was doing it properly. Bava's horrific, gawdy, and enticing eye for color and shading just ooze from each of his films. "Only God Forgives" is Refn's hermitage in the school of Bava. While "Bronson" may have solidified Refn's visual style, this film solidifies his entire oeuvre. The suspense, violence, dark psychological horror, and soulless characters are like a blend of the action and horror schlock of Bava with the subconscious ennui of Lynch. And the cinematography is indisputably awesome. All of this adds up to an auteur who I will gladly support in any future endeavors, haters be damned.
Masculine violence is not only a heavy theme in this film but in all of Refn's filmography. In this film, this violence stems from phallic legitimacy. Gosling is constantly emasculated by his mother who bluntly criticizes his penis size, insists that he is jealous of his deceased pedophile brother, and intimidates him into running her drug business for her. As for the "antagonist" (the sword-wielding cop), he doles out justice in the form of penetration. He has a sword with which to take away others' agency (their arms, mostly, another phallic representation), and when he kills in the name of justice it is always through a penetrating act.
Retributive justice is the overarching theme. The film's title will clue you in on the fact that each character, without exception, demands retribution for all wrongdoings and poor intentions. Chief among them, Ryan Gosling's character has been fantasizing about being punished for his patricide while relishing in his vicarious matricide. As his mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, says: "He killed his father with his bare hands". She says this in a feigned plea for life to the sword-wielding cop. Upon discovering her body, her son cuts a new hole in her womb and thrusts his fist into it - paralleling the earlier scene of his fantasy of putting his fist into his girlfriend in the karaoke club while she sits in the booth. (It's the only way he can express his manly feelings!) By the end of the film, even though Gosling has (arguably) done nothing wrong except for do as he is told, he has still internalized that he deserves punishment, and he offers up his hands to be cut off.
Those last two paragraphs give more clemency to the film than the majority of initial reviews combined. I saw the same response to last year's "The Neon Demon" because nobody wants to lend these films any intellectual credence. The wonderful thing about Refn's filmography is that they all look terrific. So, why wouldn't you go back over a beautifully filmed composition to get the most out of it? I've had plenty of knee-jerk reactions to films that initially pissed me off, but if they made me that sick or mad or hateful, I went back and re-watched them to figure out just what it was that made me so averse in the first place. The irony is that many who criticize Refn's films for "lacking substance" are at a loss for substantial critiques of said films. All I'm saying is give this one and "Valhalla Rising" another chance.
Consequently, there isn't a lot of dialogue in this film and there aren't really any heroes, thus making it difficult to care for the characters at hand. And the main character, played by Ryan Gosling, isn't necessarily the main focus, either, thus making it difficult to care for him.
The deliberately stoic performances from the actors, however, are actually fascinating, as the constant staring at least has somewhat of an emotional flare, just enough for characters to have mute conversations with unspoken dialogue. And Kristen Scott Thomas is outstanding as the cold bitch that is her character, Crystal.
Symbolism becomes key to understanding the point of the film. To explain without spoiling the film, one would have to figure out what in the film is symbolic, and then make connections with the bits of information serving the premise's background to believe in Refn's intentions.
While the cinematography is outstanding for being able to tell a story, the music, done by Cliff Martinez who previously scored Refn's Drive, is wonderfully moody for every situation.
Refn's stylistic storytelling in Only God Forgives should invest viewers to marvel at this oftentimes daring art-house flick that circumvents conventional film storytelling in favor of cinematography as means of film narration. What hurts the film is as aforementioned the lack of likeable characters, and I will agree that its influences are a bit too heavy for the film to be original, but it pays dear respect to those influences for its style to hold its own.