Only God Forgives (2013)

Final Rating: 4.5/10

The movie ends with a title card stating that the film was dedicated to the great director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and suddenly all of the issues with the movie come to life. I splurge this information right at the start because I feel it is necessary for any reader to know why this movie truly ended up being a failure. I may be harsh with what I say but that is because I truly expected better from Nicolas Winding Refn; a man who is still one of our generation’s great directors, but every director has his or her flop. This should not have been the flop of Refn’s career. In fact, with every single scene I can see exactly how this movie should have been brilliant, and yet it is even just barely tolerable. Only God Forgives is an unforgivable damn shame.

That anger you sense? Yeah, well don’t blame me for it. The movie carries a very despicable, hateful tone. It substitutes anger and rage for intolerance and despise, and the flow of the movie begins to feel choppy. There is no build up to these feelings. These feelings just exist already. What basic story there is no longer feels like a story but rather a bunch of similar situations played by the same few actors. Now, Refn knows how to take a basic story and make it exhilarating. Drive, a movie I would dare call a modern film classic, develops the unnamed driver into a fully dimensional wonder. Who is this man? What is there to him? We never get a full answer, and we don’t need it. The movie’s sensational push and style coast the basic storyline up to soaring heights, where every line is gripping and every scene chilling. We get a name in Only God Forgives, and it’s Julian. We get a backstory at the end of the movie explaining why Julian is such a troubled man. Instead of wondering “why” and letting the driver take us, we wonder “who honestly cares” as we witness Julian’s (and apparently all of Bangkok’s) violent episodes.

Gosling and Scott Thomas are reasonable choices for these characters (a mother and son from the depths of hell), but it is the editing, writing and even the directing that make these characters sorry cases. The odd scene when Gosling’s subtle pathos and Scott Thomas’s stubborn bitterness shine through, we can feel it. These moments are very rare and in the end aren’t even worth trying to find, because the other moments seem so forced. It’s as if these characters were the angry ignored kids in high school trying to mimic the cool kids (arguably those characters in Drive, who didn’t need much to say, where the characters in Only God Forgives really needed to speak more). Also, where Gosling was the stone faced anchor in Drive, it’s as if everyone and their grandfathers were told to be stone faced in this movie. Every line delivery is almost a joke, and it’s hard to take lines that are so poorly written seriously (a scene where Scott Thomas discusses the sizes of her two sons’ genitals and it is meant to be threatening? Only God could forgive that one!).

The biggest problem is that Refn tried to make a Jodorowsky inspired movie. A movie possibly inspired by Jodorowsky is Harmony Korine’s Gummo; a serious of disturbing vignettes that take place in a run down town. These stories with no goal in mind or very little to do with one another work because there was a concept and an overarching story idea in mind: To show the horrors of a ruined town and its disturbed youth and its insane elders. With Only God Forgives, a movie that isn’t a bunch of vignettes but instead a supposed story, it is as if the story board was the key focus and not the story the story board is faced on. The visuals are breath taking and the music is brilliant. Do the two get paired up well? Not always, and when they don’t it’s a sad case (such as the very underwhelming pseudo climax, one with great build up but a head pounding pay off). When they do work, however, we get amazing moments. The actual humanistic moment near the end when Scott Thomas confronts her son is brilliant but was the movie worth that wait? At least we can see one small moment where the movie works, and there are a number of these sprinkled everywhere.

Jodorowsky was brilliant because his movies were poetic, philosophical and deep. Only God Forgives tries to do that, which is nice, but when a movie tries to do this and be shocking at the same time, a lot gets lost. The shocking scenes aren’t shocking because there isn’t any reason for them to be. What do we know about these characters? We knew more about an unnamed man with no history in Drive than we do about this crime family and hence we care a lot more about him than we do these characters. Most of these characters are unlikeable to boot, so why does it matter if their ribs get cut open with a samurai sword? There is no connection when characters, and situations, are so disposable.

Refn targeted Jodorowsky but he missed what made the late director great. Jodorowsky didn’t just piece together various situations for any old reason. It’s as if Only God Forgives had all of its story cut out and only the shocking moments remain. The lines about pedophilia and prostitution, the many gory scenes, the fights, the pounding music, the staggering pans and cuts, everything. Looking back at this movie, the biggest problem is that it feels incomplete. I still believe a breathtaking movie lies somewhere here, but it isn’t this final cut. It isn’t this movie full of nothing but disturbances one after another. Where was the charming scene that makes us like a borderline insane anti hero, like the scenes the unnamed driver spent with his lover and her child? There is no balance, and thus these scenes don’t make an impact. They only get boring.

Last year I was fond of Brian De Palma’s Passion and not many people were. I thought people took the movie too seriously. It’s clearly satirizing many movie, and art, aspects whilst stylizing many aspects to contrast with the sillier moments. Passion had a lot of fun with itself. I assumed Only God Forgives would have been a similar movie. Now I can perhaps see what people thought of Passion, however Only God Forgives is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While it may be pretty in retrospect, it would have been with the trailer alone. At least Refn tried, and that’s where the points come in. He did try and you can see he did. He tried too hard, but he still tried. However, it is true that only God forgives, because I can’t see many of us being all that compassionate with such a mean spirited movie anytime soon.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.