Only God Forgives
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Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American fugitive from justice, runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of a vast criminal organization, arrives from the US to collect the body of her favorite son, Billy. Julian’s brother has just been killed after having savagely murdered a young prostitute. Crazy with rage and thirsty for vengeance she demands the heads of the murderers from Julian. But first, Julian must confront Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious retired policeman - and figurehead of a divine justice - who has resolved to scourge the corrupt underworld of brothels and fight clubs.
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This is not Nicholas Winding Refn's best work (I love his name, I'll write it over and over- sorry for how repetitive that may be to read), but it is probably his most visually striking film to date. Nicholas Winding Refn has always had a very specific style (inspired by Kubrick mostly- I know). He is quickly becoming an auteur at least in the sense that you will always know when you spot a film he made. His style is so striking most of the time, especially but not limited to Drive, that people have been inspired to copy the way he uses this style in many different mediums at this point.
Now look- this is not at all a bad film. In fact it may be brilliant in it's own way, but it may be a difficult one for a casual film viewer (or even casual film buff) to sit through because of it's problems as well as it's his most minimalist film. It's not wholly a silent film, but there is very little dialogue as well so you never really know much about any character in the film. This both makes it a fascinating study in how well Nicholas Winding Ren's visual style holds a film (very well for the most part in my opinion) and a test in ones ability to maintain interest when nothing is happening or a scene is being dragged out with a slow motion shot for the 5th time in the movie.
Again it's not because the movie is completely bad, but Nicholas Winding Refn struggled so much to write the script for this film (which, what there is of it, is all over the place) that very little actually happens.
There is a plot. It's super bizarre (as you tend to expect from Nicholas Winding Refn). It's a very thin one, though, and it's told in a fascinating way. It makes the film almost an experiment in the way a story can be told.
I don't like to synopsis a film in a review (that's the laziest, and most horrible way to review a story of any kind), but I will say that I am unclear who the hero of this story is supposed to be and who the villain is. I have my own ideas, but the film isn't really one to tell you who to care about. That seems entirely intentional, and in a lot of ways I like this- the way it was told (in this particular film) is fun to ponder and think about. Next to the striking visuals I think I enjoyed thinking about the film as I watched it more than anything.
Anyway, I really can't recommend this film to just anyone because it is a little difficult to sit through it. Even though it is short there is very little to grasp or see here. While the visuals are gorgeous (and they are), and there are some good performances, very little actually happens and Nicholas Winding Refn overuses slow motion scenes to drag the film to it's credits.
I was also concerned by the way it seemed like Nicholas Winding Refn is mostly just ripping his own films off in this film. Look, yes he did invent a lot of the techniques that he uses (as well as being inspired by Kubrick, I know), but when you do them the same way again in a different film, with different context, it loses a lot because it wasn't designed for that moment. It becomes stale and meaningless.
I don't want to critique Nicholas Winding Refn too harshly. I am certain he knows the problems with this film, and he labored on this one a lot (for which I know he did because of the documentary his wife made while he was making this film). I just think it's important to know what you're getting into. Major Nicholas Winding Refn fans may enjoy this film for it's interesting concepts, and overall gorgeous visuals, but it's hard to say that anyone else will like it because it's very flawed despite some (possibly unintentional) moments of genius.
The film isn't dialogue heavy nor is very action oriented but instead focuses on the strange characters that inhabit its world. some of the violence is senseless (as it is in real life), sexual themes bubble up and sometimes the character's actions are impulsive. All of this creates a gritty world filmed in a way to make you the viewer feel like a voyeur watching from a dark corner.
Director Refn's work here is pure B-movie genius presented as mainstream high art and I believe that may be where the disconnect between critic and film comes. "only God Forgives" is a strange, twisted film that looks at broken people guided by a sense of justice warped by their varying levels of morality (or lack of) who collide in an unsavory place with nasty consequences. There is no grand plot, just characters, conflict, a series of events and a conclusion - all served presented in beautifully shot dark scenes wrapped in neon city lights and dreary sunlight.
If you are looking for a film with a message, amazing acting or a fantastic action film you should pass. This film is definitely for those of us who stay up late, watch crazy films and wake up the next day with a smile asking "was that movie real?"
If you're going in expecting to see another Drive, then you are going to have a very bad time, this is a completely different kind of movie and isn't anywhere as near as accessibly. But if you enjoy movies that are very stylized, go at their own pace and tell some of the story through what some may consider unconventional means, then give this movie a shot.
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