One of the most exciting directors to watch today is Nicolas Winding Refn. Ever since he debuted on the screen, Refn has made quality films in the arthouse genre, such as The Pusher Series, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising. Refn always has had a great visual asthetic to his films, and they all tend to look fantastic. Despite the fact that Refn’s career had several solid outings, he stayed in obscurity for most of his career. That was until 2011, when Drive was released.
Storming onto the film festival scene, Drive was able to impress, earning Refn the Best Director award at the Cannes film festival. When it was released, it was an enormous critical success, scoring an impressive 93% on RottenTomatoes. While the film failed to become a huge hit among audience, film fans became far more aware of who Refn is, as he has gained far more of a following, and Drive has become a cult classic. His latest Only God Forgives has been one of the more anticipated for the summer by most, but has largely been considered a disappointment by critics (holding a 33% on RottenTomatoes) and audiences (a 53% Audience score on RottenTomatoes). Despite this, Only God Forgives is another solid outing for Refn.
Only God Forgives follows Julian, whose brother is murdered by hard as nails police officer Chang. When his mom Crystal comes to town, Julian is now forced to revenge his brother.
That plot synopsis seems rather simple, but Nicholas Winding Refn’s script is great. Refn takes the kind of average revenge type storyline, but tells it in his own way, by making it far more in-depth and character based. When you think of it, the story is not different at all from last month’s Redemption, but due to the fact that Refn is able to infuse unique characteristics to the script to make it his own. It’s like nothing you have ever seen before, and that is always great to see in a movie.
The script also allows for much interpretation, which is great in a movie. Each scene is filled with subtle little character moments, which are always nice to see when re-watching. Rarely has such a simple story about a man’s redemption been so subtle and deep, but Refn pulls it off in spades here, with this effort being perhaps his best script in a great career.
Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. Refn, along with cinematographer Larry Smith, creates a very vibrant, bold, and defined visual style, which just entrances its audience. The way these two can just perfectly capture such emotion with just one shot takes a level of skill which is impressive, especially its raw reds displaying the emotion of the characters. Every element about the shots in the film is just perfect, and it would be a real shame if this film didn’t get any awards for such skill.
Playing along nicely with the visuals is the score by Cliff Martinez, who is one of the best in the business. After such great work on film’s like Spring Breakers and Drive, Martinez is able to put together another score that fits the film perfectly. Martinez’s perfectly captures the atmosphere here with a very dream-like score, which all sounds great. The “Wanna Fight” track is easily one of the best tracks of the year so far.
The performances for the most part are terrific. Ryan Gosling seems to be taking heat for doing a performance people think is very much similar to both Drive and Place Beyond the Pines, but it does not seem that way to me. Gosling’s character is easily one of his most interesting and flawed characters yet, as he gives that same cold gaze, but that gaze has just a whole new layer to it. Gosling’s character is in some ways a combination between his awkward character in Lars and the Real Girl and the passionate one of Drive, which seems odd, but works well. The silence of his character works, as Julian wants to communicate, but just doesn’t know how. Then from that gaze, you can just see all of the emotion in him that’s just boiling inside.
It’s truly one of his best performances, and matching him is relative unknown Vithaya Pansringarm, who is able to posses that same subtlety, as well as be very threatening at the same time. Both actors truly control the screen here, giving potent and subtle performances, that really were essential to making this film work. Gosling especially is just one of the best working today, and I’ll see him give his classic stare any day of the week.
One of the most talked about elements about the film is the violence. Many are coming out and saying its disgusting and not needed, which just isn’t true. For me at least, the violence showed the true horror of what these character’s were doing, and truly questioned violence by anyone, even a hero of sorts. Also, nothing was really Saw-level when it comes to gore, so it really was not offensive at all.
One performance stood out as a weak link, and that is Kristin Scott Thomas, who really is just hamming it up to the highest possible level here. I understand what the character was and what was trying to be done with her, but it mostly just comes off as unintentionally silly, especially one dinner scene where she compares her son’s penis sizes. It was not that a terrible performance, but could have been done with far more realism.
The ending of the movie is very out of nowhere and abrupt, and it was not the best way to end the film for me. Refn reportedly shot an additional scene at the end, but cut it during post-production. After hearing what that scene is, it’s a shame it wasn’t put in the film, because it would have ended the film on a better note overall.
A minor complaint; some of the singing numbers in the film were just kind of out there and slowed down the pacing a bit, but I still always love to see some movies with karaoke in them!
Only God Forgives is one of the year’s best, with a deep story, great characters, and a truly alive and amplified visual look. It’s not for everyone, but be sure to at least give it a chance in either your local art house theater or On Demand.
Do a Shot: for every awkward Kristin Scott Thomas line.
Do a Shot: for the samurai sword, how can you beat that!
Take a Drink: after each shot of hands.
Take a Drink: during each brutal death scene.