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Only God Forgives Review: Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's Luxuriously Stage-Managed Parade of Blood and Guts

By Caspar Salmon | Film Reviews | July 19, 2013 | Comments ()


Only God.jpg

Oscar Wilde famously posited that the true artist need have no moral considerations: true art is not moral or immoral, it can only be good art or bad art; morality is the subject sometimes of art, but not its object. I paraphrase, of course — but I wonder if Wilde would have revised his position if he had been subjected to Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s new, luxuriously stage-managed parade of blood and guts. In Winding Refn’s peerlessly daffy vision, violence and gore need have no human dimension attached to them at all, since they are entertaining in and of themselves. That humans have to be killed or tortured in order for us to enjoy the sight of blood and pain is a minor hindrance to him, which he surmounts by having actors play approximations of human beings. Ryan Gosling may have a human face and may occasionally utter words — with the implication that, being blessed with language, he is a person with thoughts and emotions — but in reality he is only one of so many props for Winding Refn to arrange in a deathly-perfect shot under neon lighting. Correction: Gosling is a slightly better prop than, say, a table — because a table doesn’t bleed.

Only God Forgives (a staggeringly dumb and portentous title for a film with no spiritual dimension and only the faintest stab at the sort of moral compass that might be required in order to understand the notion of forgiveness) tells the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), a young drug trafficker called upon by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his murderous brother at the hands of a twisted police superintendent. Kristin Scott Thomas hires some people to murder the policeman, who in turn murders the accomplices of Gosling and KST, and the whole thing proceeds ad nauseam until the face-off you would expect.

That’s in in terms of plot. There is no real need for a plausible narrative when there’s violence to be getting on with and prettiness to stage, and Winding Refn requires only the barest of excuses to get his show on the road. Nearly everything you would hope for from a Nicolas Winding Refn movie is there to enjoy. There is some exquisite lighting and movie-making, with backwards tracking shots galore, and a barrel-load of still frames decorated to high heaven with colourful lamps and flowers and women, and some sumptuous close-ups of Gosling and Scott Thomas in Bangkok, looking like breathing pop-art pictures. There is highly polished work on sound, with a pulsating score underlining the precise choreography — for the murders and fights in here are devised down to the merest drop of blood — and some karaoke music offering respite in between the more violent moments.

That may be as much as I can bear to say in favour of this film, although I would add that creating crisp, beautiful pictures out of violence, and ratcheting up the tension with such consummate skill before an act of torture takes place, are not things I consider plus points so much as indications of a psychological and ethical vacuum. The film’s attempt to create a human drama revolves around an Oedipus-by-numbers narrative of displaced maternal love, and the tension between Gosling and KST is supposed to draw on that. We are told that she is disapppointed in him, and that he wants to earn her respect and love: but all of this is said to us in overt ways at least three times in the film, rather than articulated through proper acting or something akin to dialogue. The result is that the film strains to have any dramatic credibility, since all actions must have an impetus. By the time Winding Refn has reached the end of his carnage, there has been so much senseless death, none of it apparently affecting anyone emotionally in any way, that the film’s paltry effort at character has necessarily had to take a backseat.

There are two possible reactions to the death of a loved one in this film: stoney-faced blankness, or the instant wish for retribution. This may be where Winding Refn is wrong: plenty of people forgive. Forgiveness is part of the life of anyone remotely balanced, but for this director it is easier to foist it onto a deity in order to allow his hand-puppets to off each other.

The actors do their best, but since I was completely detached from the events of the film due to its sterile beauty and lack of psychological verisimilitude, I failed to connect with them. Kristin Scott Thomas, who is got up in a kind of trashy Veronica Lake styling, brings a performance that tends towards the ridiculous, as the foul-mouthed, cowing matriarch: she is written so overtly as a gasp-inducing grotesque that she feels flat. Gosling is blank throughout, apart from one scene in which he screams at someone: this is a pity because if only he had been given the chance to register some emotions the film might have been anchored in something plausible and recognisable to people. Whatever the flaws of Drive, there was at least a narrative that gave the Driver an impetus for his actions — his feelings for Carey Mulligan’s character, namely. Here we are gasping for a reason for all of this to exist, but none comes: it’s a totally self-legitimising work.

I realise I may not be the target audience for this film: I am not entertained by the relentless sight of someone being tortured, but for those who have a fondness for such things, I’m happy to recommend Only God Forgives as the apex of what can be done with a camera, some lighting, two bodies, and a bunch of knives.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Brian Martin

    Just watched, result: Only God Forgives > Drive.

  • idiosynchronic

    I miss the days when wearing white to one of these murder-porns was the height of style. And slow-mo tracking shots.

  • Barnacle Bill

    This review describes my exact expectations after watching the yawn-inducing trailer.

  • sean

    I am watching this movie right now. Not remotely good so far. Well made, great looking thing...but awful.

  • googergieger

    Yeah had no real interest in seeing it. Didn't like Drive, or anything else the director has done outside of Bronson that severely leaned on the lead to carry the film. Again I've seen what this director fails to do, done better. Several times. Guy is just awful when it comes to pace, and everything reeks of MTV art school gimmick done solely for the purpose to show the world how in love he is with himself.

  • Fredo

    After watching Bronson and Drive, it seems to me that Refn is interested in his characters, but not necessarily in a story. There's a narrative. There's plot. But if it wasn't because of Tom Hardy or Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, those movies would lack any impetus or energy to continue moving forward.

  • BendinIntheWind

    Is now not a good time to come out of the woodwork and say that I really disliked "Drive"? Because I really disliked Drive.

    ...thus ends my contribution to this thread.

  • NateMan

    Welcome, brother.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I really wanted to like it, and I very much appreciate what the director was trying to do, but just became all style and no substance. Yes, Ryan, you're very pretty to look at, but the character was less "strong, silent type" and more "borderline Asberger's sufferer who tries to understand the hu-man emotions".

  • BobbFrapples

    The violence in Drive was shocking, but fit within the framework of the film. I'm not into torture porn, so I think I'll sit this one out.

  • Maguita NYC

    I agree with you on Drive, but I need to watch this one as well. Maybe it is the gore thing that has people turning away from the story, even if it is silent.

  • I loved Drive but it was more to do with the supporting cast and the general vibe of the movie rather than the movie itself. This review for Only God Forgives doesn't surprise me. I really wasn't that interested in seeing it before, now even less so since it is apparently exactly what the trailers make it out to be. That's not really interesting.

  • Oh god... When you read the script you kind of understand the characters and their motivations, but it seems he failed to translate that to the screen... What a pity.

  • hickoryduck

    What is the appeal of hyper-violent films? WHY do you want to watch someone's face get bashed in? I'll jut never ever understand it.

  • E Robb

    Sometimes violence isn't violence. Sometimes it's just a representation of drama. It's a metaphor for conflict and resolution. Valhalla Rising is at once an incredibly bloody film and a patient, almost serene meditation.

  • $27019454

    I would love a Pajiba article about just this. Speaking for my bad self, I love love love violent films, unless I don't. Context is key, for me. Violence a la Fight Club, The Wild Bunch, and that one fantastic beating scene in Layer Cake -- just a visceral delight. Violence a la Seven, Natural Born Killers -- no thank you. It has so much (for me) to do with detachment.

  • kinoumenthe

    I agree about the "love violent films, unless I don't". It's matter of context, type of violence, involvement with the characters, what have you, a mixture of elements in different configurations.

  • NateMan

    Depends on the movie. For me the nihilism and resentment in Fight Club of young (mostly white) men who grew up to find the lofty promises of past generations were so much hot air spoke to where I was in life. Crank uses its violence the way a cartoon might, in a completely non-realistic but thoroughly entertaining way. Drive and this, however, appeal to me not one iota.

  • Mel C.

    Drive has flaws?

  • Brian Martin

    I was a BIG Refn & Gosling fan, & when I heard all the Cannes buzz about Drive I had a pleasure seizure; however, (for me) the fatal flaw in that film is the deflated climax due to the jump cuts forward & backward through time...if Refn had instead allowed tension to build by forcing us to sit through that dinner, & then follow them to the parking lot, I would've been screaming warnings to Gosling's character in the theater.

  • NateMan

    It did to both my wife and I. We absolutely loathed it. Too boring for an action movie, too grisly for a thinking film. Obviously a personal taste thing, since most people disagree with us.

  • ᴍʏ ʙᴇsᴛ ғʀɪᴇɴᴅ's sɪsᴛᴇʀ-ɪɴ-ʟᴀᴡ ᴍᴀᴋᴇs $75 ʜᴏᴜʀʟʏ ᴏɴ ᴛʜᴇ ʟᴀᴘᴛᴏᴘ. Sʜᴇ ʜᴀs ʙᴇᴇɴ ᴏᴜᴛ ᴏғ ᴀ ᴊᴏʙ ғᴏʀ ғɪᴠᴇ ᴍᴏɴᴛʜs ʙᴜᴛ ʟᴀsᴛ ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ʜᴇʀ ᴘᴀʏᴍᴇɴᴛ ᴡᴀs $12807 ᴊᴜsᴛ ᴡᴏʀᴋɪɴɢ ᴏɴ ᴛʜᴇ ʟᴀᴘᴛᴏᴘ ғᴏʀ ᴀ ғᴇᴡ ʜᴏᴜʀs. Gᴏ ᴛᴏ ᴛʜɪs ᴡᴇʙ sɪᴛᴇ ᴀɴᴅ ʀᴇᴀᴅ ᴍᴏʀᴇ Mojo50­.c­o­m­

  • bleujayone

    TWAT-BOT ALERT!!! TWAT-BOT ALERT!!! TWAT-BOT ALERT!!!

    *high pitched siren

    WHOOP!!! WHOOP!!! WHOOP!!! WHOOP!!! WHOOP!!! WHOOP!!!

    * low pitched siren

    NEEEE-NEERR!!!! FUCK OFF! YOU SUCK! NEEEE-NEERR!!!!
    NEEEE-NEERR!!!! FUCK OFF! YOU SUCK! NEEEE-NEERR!!!!
    NEEEE-NEERR!!!! FUCK OFF! YOU SUCK! NEEEE-NEERR!!!!

    *rhythmic beeping

    *beep-click

  • God bless John Robison

  • Maguita NYC

    Guess Refn went through her script as well.

  • Greg!

    This review brought to you by the em dash

  • Very well-written review. I tend to think I'll enjoy this a bit more than you, although the way you describe this film almost completely mirrors my feelings toward Drive.

  • Natallica

    Is when reading this review that I, too, finally get to wholly devise why I disliked Drive so much.

  • My most anticipated film coming out of Cannes.

    After Inside Llewyn Davis.

  • Maguita NYC

    Something is definitely wrong with me: Even after this review, I STILL want to watch that movie.

  • Whatever it is wrong with you is the same thing that's wrong with me.
    Which, in that case, by definition, has to be whatever is RIGHT with us.

  • Maguita NYC

    So two wrongs make it right?
    I'm down with that, mescaline and Czech beer style.

  • Damn right! (or wrong)

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