Only God Forgives is either a brooding masterpiece or a pretentious calamity, I’m not sure which- or maybe it’s both. I recall news from its premier in Cannes of people walking out mid-movie (I don ‘t know if it was true or not but having watched it I can understand it if people did walk). Some reviews from Cannes declared it a masterpiece and others derided it as meaningless nonsense, so it even split that crowd, which takes some doing . For myself, well, I guess I’m split down the middle with this one after my first viewing- in its defence, it’s certainly the kind of film that demands a revisit in order to really be sure of ‘getting’ it. But whether films really should need that second viewing at all is another matter entirely.
Its a valid argument that Only God Forgives suffers from following on from Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film, Drive, which also starred Ryan Gosling, if only because Drive proved so popular with a mainstream which Only God Forgives seems hell-bent on now alienating, and its fascinating to compare the two films. Drive was a stylish, powerfully effective thriller that remains one of my favourite films of the last decade. It was an arthouse movie dressed up as a standard Hollywood thriller, oozing style and cinematic magic. It looked utterly beautiful, sounded beautiful, but beyond that surface gloss had a great story, great acting and some hidden depth.
Indeed in many ways Only God Forgives is an anti-Drive, which was likely a concious decision on Refn’s part (whether that was brave or foolish though is debatable). Even people who didn’t rate Drive would admit to it at least having had a coherent plot, whereas that can’t be necessarily said of Only God Forgives even by its fans. While Drive had layers of subtext and melancholy, Only God Forgives is drenched in doom and despair, plot and subtext replaced either by enigmatic mystery or awful storytelling (depending on how much slack you’re willing to cut it). It lack’s Drive‘s substance, its character arcs replaced by a rather incoherent series of events that may or may not even be related, for reasons that are never clear, with hardly any sense of purpose or than to infuriate and confuse. It may be a great movie, it may be great art, it may be utter bollocks. I have an inclination to lean towards the latter as I disliked Refn’s earlier film Valhalla Rising for being pretentious bad storytelling but after Drive I’m prepared to cut Refn some slack.
So, where to begin? Lets look at what at least appears to be happening. We are in Bangkok. Julian (Gosling) runs a boxing club with his brother Billy, but the club is a front for a drugs operation. After a drunken night out searching for an under-age prostitute, Billy is found having raped and killed a sixteen year old prostitute, and is then murdered by the girl’s father under the allowance/encouragement of the corrupt police and its mysterious karaoke-singing Captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Soon after Julian’s mother (an unrecognisable but scene-stealing Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok demanding bloody revenge on all those responsible.
Its easy to understand why that’s how the marketing sold the film (and thus alienated many eventual audiences afterwards). Because that isn’t necessarily what the film is really about.
Consider this alternative view. We are, literally, in Hell. All who dwell here are guilty of terrible crimes and misdeeds, deserving of punishment and/or begging for atonement, lingering in this neon-drenched Bangkok. Julian runs a boxing club with his brother Billy as a front for a drugs operation. We will eventually learn that both suffered from an abusive mother who likely had incestuous affairs with both of them- indeed Julian killed his own father due to his own feelings of jealousy and guilt (Julian in particular is obsessed with this guilt, literally seeing blood on his hands that he cannot wash away). Both boys are in Hell for their past lives and are looking for a way out, Billy taking the first and simplest opportunity. Billy actually states he is ‘going to meet the Devil’ and goes out, a night of violence culminating in the rape and murder of a Thai prostitute, after which he simply waits for the police to turn up, awaiting his punishment. Like Hell’s own footsoldiers, the police dutifully arrive, and the police captain like an Archangel of Death (or the Devil, or even, dare I say it, God Himself) pronounces judgement on Billy who, strangely, does not attempt to escape or fight back, simply allowing the dead girl’s father to beat him to a bloody death. Chang follows this with judgement on the dead girls own father for allowing his daughters to fall into prostitution, before retiring to a nightclub to relax singing at a karaoke (raising the bizarre question, does God relax from His labours by becoming a karaoke?). Soon after, Julian’s mother Crystal arrives in this Purgatory declaring that the reprehensible, drug-dealing rapist Billy was actually her favourite, demanding bloody revenge on those who took her favoured son away from her whilst demeaning Julian at every opportunity, particularly in front of Julian’s girlfriend to whom she criticises Julian’s manhood comparing it to Billy’s. Cheerful movie this decidedly isn’t.
So what’s the film really about? What’s actually going on? After just this one viewing I cannot possibly say. Clearly I need to follow up my 2014 Hitlist with ‘A List Of Films I Need To See Again’, and put this at the top of the list. On the plus side, it looks astonishing in HD, and has an utterly mesmerising Cliff Martinez score. But its hard to say whether there’s a really good film here buried under the apparent subtext (ala Mullholland Drive, say)or if its just really bad storytelling. My ‘view’ of what the film may be about might just be my imagination apologising for the films faults, in much the same way my ideas about Gravity’s final third may just be me excusing that film for the many ‘conveniences’ riddling it. Sure, Only God Forgives certainly looks gorgeous but so many films do these days, and I particularly dislike films that are all style over content. Well, we’ll have to wait and see.