Only God Forgives // Detached pointlessness

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Vithaya Pansringarm


I really wanted to like this film. I really did.

As of now I do not. Immediately after walking out of the theatre I remember feeling indifferent about it but thinking about it a little more it's beginning to grow on me. Some scenes I still think about now and the images themselves are unforgettable. Though I am still grappling with what these images mean and why I wasn't strongly affected by them. I have to admit, it's partly my fault why the film did not impact me as I thought it should. Unfortunately, the film suffered from something that I try really hard to suppress before seeing a film. Something called 'Ridiculously High Expectations Because Of Precedent' (same fate befell on The Past, Farhadi's follow up to A Separation).

I had set a bar that was far too high for this film since it's brought to us by the same director/actor duo that brought us Drive, a film that is a masterpiece in character restraint, visual style and pacing. Only God Forgives succeeds in all those things as well which is why I find it difficult to pinpoint what really went wrong, or what I probably missed.

Going back to my initial reaction of indifference, I also remember feeling extremely disappointed. I expect it to affect me emotionally but it left me feeling cold. There isn't any pulse, or any kind of bloodflow running through the film. The characters aren't people, they're body puppets that are there to kill or be killed. We get pretty much the same character from Ryan Gosling as we did from Drive. They're both quiet and seem to be suppressing something toxic bubbling inside but there is one difference.

The Driver's quietness and restraint made complete sense in Drive, he's someone who takes pleasure in his own company. The act of driving for him is like a spiritual experience and is best felt alone. Until that scene when he takes Irene and her son for a drive through LA river while 'A Real Hero' by College plays. We witness the wall of solitude slowly disintegrate. Him and Irene share a glance and an understanding of what this means to both of them. In Only God Forgives, you don't get any of that. There are none of those poignant moments to punctuate and balance the violence and the detachment. It was one note with not much to say about anything complex. There is very little dialogue or connection between the two leads. They just end up being dead weights. They have a fight scene in the middle of the movie but despite the physical intensity of it you don't really care about any of these people at all therefore you are not invested. There is nothing at stake. 

Violence on screen can instigate a particular reaction that can vary based on the context (who is committing and to whom), how invested we are on the characters, its depiction (explicitness or suggestiveness) and genre. The audience is riled up in a horror movie when the protagonist gets the last stab and the bad guy is defeated. There are also subversions to this scenario. One that comes to mind is the scene in Haneke's Funny Games when the bad guy is shot and cruelly, the film is rewound, literally rewound with a remote control, and the gunshot is averted. Let's then consider the infamous elevator scene in Drive which for me produced a complex reaction towards the violence depicted on screen. The Driver stomps his foot repeatedly on a man's face. There's an obvious rage that has been built up for a long time, he doesn't even stop when it's clear the man is already dead. But what makes this scene more affecting than the fight scene in Only God Forgives is the presence of Irene. Here is a woman who has seen the quiet tenderness of this man who is now sadistically crushing a man's skull under his foot. He will now forever be a murderer in her eyes. None of the violent scenes in Only God Forgives have any emotional repercussions because we don't have any sort of investment for the characters. Sure, they are acting out violently out of revenge or the urge to bestow justice but in the end they merely represent these as concepts rather than people who are being affected by these concepts. 

Admittedly, it is beautiful to look at. It does have a consistent atmosphere. Some reviewers even compare it to Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love. The only difference is Mood For Love's images are both beautiful and affecting. Only God Forgives lacks the latter. This is not filmmaking. It's not even photography because at least most photographs elicit an emotional response. This is advertising. Advertising of the worst kind because it advertises not a product or a service but the people who made it. This is just a showreel for how good Ryan Gosling can look on screen and how cool Pansringarm can wield a sword. It's a showreel for its cinematographers and director showing us how good they are at shooting things, how great the colour palette is or how visually exciting their compositions are. 

This is not a movie. It's just a whole lot of nothing.

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