Only God Forgives

4 Aug


You might have heard of Only God Forgives. The latest effort from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn prompted huge anticipation and expectation when it was announced that it would team the helmsman with previous accomplice Ryan Gosling. The two worked together on the magnificent Drive, a film that quickly worked it’s way towards the top of my ‘favourite films ever’ list. That film was dark, moody, cool and had the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard.

When the initial trailers for Only God Forgives started to be drip fed to us, they did nothing to deter it’s target audience from the idea that this was going to be Drive 2.0. It looked dark, moody, cool and sounded like it had a great soundtrack. Cue excitement from Drive and Gosling devotees such as myself. So when the film was screened at The Cannes Film Festival, receiving boos and prompting walkouts, I was a little surprised and concerned. Described as hyper-violent, self-indulgent and misogynistic in several quarters, I began to worry that one of my favourite actors may have contributed to a dud.

It didn’t dampen my excitement though. The amazing thing about film criticism is that even when it’s bad it can whet your appetite. The trailers, the leading man and the director had done that enough already, but the reviews were intriguing. Amassing a pathetic Metascore from critics of 37/100 (taken from IMDB), there have still been five star reviews breaking through from respected publications such as The Guardian and Empire magazine. As I sat in the auditorium at my local multiplex, and as the lights dimmed, it dawned on me that film reviews have never had such an effect on me. I was genuinely anxious that 1) the film was going to be a let down, and 2) it was going to be too violent (I am somewhat squeamish you see).


Now for the bit I normally do at the start – the story outline. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug dealer in Bangkok. When his brother commits a murder, and is in turn killed himself, his mother turns up and coerces him into to trying to find the killers and exacting revenge.

So, the important bit. Was it worth the anxiety, critical kicking and accusations I outlined above? Well, one word deals quickly with that question…No. Is it Drive 2.0? Absolutely not. It certainly contains similar elements, but this is it’s own movie. Like Drive, much of this film is portrayed through visuals and suggestion, rather than dialogue. It could work perfectly as a silent film. Billed as the star, Ryan Gosling only speaks 22 lines throughout. Where we do have dialogue though, it is biting and sharp. Julian is as mysterious as The Driver from Drive, and just as cool. If you ever see anybody look as suave as Gosling whilst spinning the barrel of a gun and then cocking it, I’ll be amazed. He drips cool from every pore. This might be a zany comparison, but in sheer measurement of coolness, Gosling with a gun puts me in mind of a young Clint Eastwood. He doesn’t need to try, it just looks right.

Gosling’s overall performance is impressive and was the first great area of relief for me with this film. I was dreading a rehash of The Driver, much though I love that character. For the majority of his screentime he is essentially playing a silent part, and he does it with such competence that you’d believe he could have made a healthy living in a bygone era of cinema. When he does speak, he makes for compelling viewing. A scene where he demands that a girl removes her clothes is impossible to take your eyes off, just for the way in which he loses his cool whilst barely speaking.


The real star of this film though is Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal, the psychotic mother to Julian. She’s on screen a mere matter of seconds before she’s stolen the show. She provides a psychological edge to every scene she’s in that is absolutely remarkable. She is essentially the centrepiece of the story, a point highlighted at all times by Winding Refn and his incredible framing. In most of her scenes, she is literally the centerpiece on screen. She’s the middle of three characters sat around a table for a meal, and when she’s alone she occupies the very middle of the picture. She is physically incredible as well. At all times, I found her so imposing as to leave me genuinely unnerved. You can never be too sure of what’s going on behind the eyes, which with this character is not a comfortable feeling.

Vithaya Pansringham is also chilling as Chang, “The Angel of Vengeance”. The ease and precision with which he exacts justice is frightening and is the source of many of the films more gruesome moments.

For all the talk of this being a self-indulgent movie from Winding Refn, I actually felt that at times it was surprisingly reserved. It often feels like it is teetering on the brink of chaos, like epic fight scenes might be about to break out. Instead, Winding Refn holds back. Deaths are quick, clean and precise. There is only one scene that springs to mind where this wasn’t necessarily the case; that being a torture scene that plays obscene brutality for a few dark laughs and, as with everything else, is almost impossible to take your eyes off.

For this film to work, the visuals had to be perfect, and my god they are. Full of sharp angles and clean surfaces, this is one of the most polished movies I’ve ever seen. Forgive the ridiculous contradiction but there are moments when the film is simultaneously dark and bright. I’ll not try and elaborate on that one, I’ll just leave it with you because I’m aware it barely makes any sense. Full of contrasting colours, characters lurking in shadows and using differences in light to frame a scene, this is a masterclass in producing aesthetically perfect cinema. The score from Drive collaborator Cliff Martinez is also excellent. It compliments the film perfectly, creating tension and anxiety throughout.


Let’s clear up the earlier points then;

  • Is this film hyper violent? Well, there is violence yes, and it’s often gruesome and extreme, but to me it never felt gratuitous. This is a story where violence is a key component. If you don’t like that, then don’t watch the film, but to pay your money and then complain that it’s too violent is, to my mind, crass and pathetic. Nobody made you watch it. It’s akin to going to a football match and then complaining that it’s not good because you don’t like sport.
  • Is it self-indulgent? There’s certainly an argument here for ‘yes’, but why should that be a bad thing? It makes for a fantastic film, full of tension and stunning visuals. I want directors and writers to make films that they enjoy. I don’t believe it for a second, but if this was a vanity project or ego stroking exercise for the Dane, then I’m happy for him – he’s made a good movie.
  • Is it misogynistic? No. Not at all. I’m not even entertaining that one, it’s a lazy, boring and uninformed criticism.

I dare say that anybody connected with this film will be delighted with the criticism it has faced. The overreaction to the violent elements has been extreme, which will pique interest. The auditorium was one of the most full I’ve experienced for a film this year, which as a small sample would suggest that no damage has been done to the films earning potential.

I am 100% certain that Only God Forgives will improve with repeated viewings, just like it’s cousin movie Drive. I will confess I can see why some would find the movie tedious; fortunately I am of the mind that rather than being dull, this is a tense and gripping thriller. Far from finding it over the top, I was actually surprised and impressed by Winding Refn’s restraint. It could be considered to be style over substance owing to it’s stunning visuals and loose narrative arc, but that can’t fairly be cited as a flaw when it is so clearly exactly what the director aimed for. An award worthy performance from Kristin Scott Thomas wonderfully compliments another turn from Gosling that further cements his growing reputation as the star of his generation and makes Only God Forgives one of the most essential and unforgettable movies of 2013.



11 Responses to “Only God Forgives”

  1. Tyson Carter August 4, 2013 at 20:44 #

    Glad you enjoyed it so much. For me, it didnt quite hit the mark. I was a little disappointed, but still felt parts of it were excellent, just not constant enough.

    • Richard Burns August 4, 2013 at 20:49 #

      Thanks for commenting. I can completely see why it wouldn’t appeal to everybody as much as me, but I do think a lot of the criticism levelled at it has been lazy. Though I would disagree, I would understand accusations of tediousness, monotony and what you say about inconsistency.

  2. Tom August 4, 2013 at 21:20 #

    Excellent review, makes me very excited to go see this. This is going to be one of those movies, as you pointed out, that gets even more interesting just based on the critical backlash it is/has been receiving and I, for one, am psyched. I absolutely adored Drive, so there’s very, very little that this film could do to make me not fall in love with OGF. I suppose we shall see. Can’t wait until it gets released here (if it ever does. . . )

    • Richard Burns August 4, 2013 at 21:39 #

      Thanks Tom! I hope you don’t have to wait too long to see it, love or hate it I think it’s one of the must-see films of the year, there’s so much going on that it’s just impossible to take in one viewing, I already can’t wait to see it a second time.
      Drive is one of my all time favourites so certainly had me stoked for this one. Just don’t go in expecting or hoping for too similar a movie!

  3. justjase79 August 5, 2013 at 01:52 #

    Excellent review, more than wanting to see this film, it’s made me disappointed and annoyed at myself that I have not yet seen Drive

    • Richard Burns August 5, 2013 at 16:24 #

      Thank you! Drive is a modern classic in my opinion, destined to be remembered as a stand out of it’s era

  4. Three Rows Back August 5, 2013 at 07:55 #

    Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. Check out my review if you get a sec 🙂

    • Richard Burns August 5, 2013 at 17:01 #

      Thanks for the comment. I just read your review, really enjoyed it – clearly we agree on a lot of the points.

      • Three Rows Back August 5, 2013 at 20:18 #

        Thanks a lot, appreciate it. Yeah we do agree; it’s one of those love or hate films, glad you love it.

  5. SheGotGame (@ShawnaWTF) August 5, 2013 at 11:59 #

    I didn’t connect with it much but there is still stuff to admire about it. Glad you enjoyed it more than I did.

    • Richard Burns August 5, 2013 at 17:02 #

      That’s a shame, but I can fully understand why people wouldn’t like this one.

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