re:View – Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives, which is a good job as Drive fans may never forgive Director Nicholas Winding Refn for this beautiful disaster.

Ever since it’s screening at Cannes, Only God Forgives has caused controversy and mixed reviews. Refn’s infamous use of the F word on BBC breakfast while promoting Drive, has marked him for his bluntness and a general disregard to the establishment. His latest film seems no exception to this attitude towards Hollywood.

Only God Forgives fan artwork. Photo: Spr2 (via wikimedia)


Only God Forgives fan artwork. Photo: Spr2 (via wikimedia)

Only God Forgives fan artwork. Photo: Spr2 (via wikimedia)

Clear from the outset that this is an exploration into a different culture from which mainstream cinema is used to. Faced with a neon soaked world we are introduced to Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his off the rails brother Billy (Tom Burke) working in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok.

A dysfunctional family, Julian appears lost in dreamlike shadows with only a prostitute and disembodied visions of fear to accompany him. His brother Billy exhibits a need for violence, which quickly results in him being killed for raping and murdering a young girl.

The death of Billy seems to speed the documentary slow pace of the film with the arrival of the boy’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas).  Modelled on a trashy Lady Macbeth, Donatella Versace cross, the result is terrifying. Bleached blonde with manicured claws that could kill at mere swipe, Scott Thomas is without doubt the star, with put downs that could strip wallpaper.

Scott-Thomas’s verbosity lifts the sagging dialogue, with Gosling only delivering a mere 22 lines throughout the film, which leads to a massive misuse of this talented actor. Whilst his presence is often enough to fill the screen, it would be a much better use of his skills to move past the strong and silent character.

Crystal incites Julian to take revenge for Billy’s death whilst making no bones of her preference of Billy over Julian, whilst in the same breath she demands exacting obedience. Julian and Crystal’s relationship is a journey to psychiatrists chair, touching on incestuous at times, a relationship Freud would have been able to spend hours analysing.

Scott Thomas however is not enough to breathe life into an ailing narrative. The story has no direction or focus. There is more plot to a game of noughts and crosses than this stagnant confusing film. The violence seems sensationalist to warrant some response from the audience other than pure puzzlement.

Refn works hard on the audiences expectations through editing and sparse scripting, but rather than leaving the audience to imagine violence he ploughs through to show everything from the slicing of eyelids and sword action, which seems over done and frankly unnecessary.

The thing that doesn’t disappoint is the films beauty. It’s a blood soaked car crash you can’t look away from. Every shot is carefully thought out to the point where it would rival Stanley Kubrick’s OCD. Sweeping shots put the audience right in the heart of Bangkok, extenuating the documentary feel further. Framing every shot perfectly, no actor is out of place and Refn directs the audience’s eye with the skill of magician.

It is therefore disappointing that this beautifully shot film could not be combined with an equally compelling storyline. It unfortunately does not emulate Drive’s success, it meekly tries and fails to follow in its footsteps.

A deeply confusing film that leaves you to question whether you dreamt it all, which bizarrely makes you want to see it all again just to check. However multiple viewings would not make Only God Forgives any more comprehensible.

Helen Naylor contributed to this report.