Nicholas Winding Refn is one of my favourite directors, despite the fact I’ve only seen a handful of his films (I should really get round to the others). Those that I have seen, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive, are all simply magnificent. His very stylised and unconventional film-making will certainly not appease everyone, but his films are wonderfully shot and, unlike the brainless Transformers and Fast and Furiouses of the modern era, they actually leave a lot for you to think about yourself.
Whereas Drive could be considered as a move towards the mainstream (not in a bad way) with the casting of Baby Goose and something which resembles more of a traditional plot than Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn’s latest film Only God Forgives is perhaps the least conventional of the lot. Gosling is reunited with Winding Refn as an American, Julian, working at a Boxing club in Bangkok which, shock horror, is actually a front for a drug dealing business. When his brother is killed, his nutter of a mother, Crystal, shows up and suggests he should take revenge on the killer, as well as mysterious sword-wielding Thai cop Chang who is somehow involved…
Only God Forgives could be seen as the extreme end of Winding Refn’s style that he has been playing with on his previous 3 films and is ultimately going to divide audiences because of it. Its pace is slow; characters walk slowly, talk slowly (or not at all, Gosling’s character especially has very few lines) and, as with Drive, there is a lot of staring. There are also many shots that appear to not actually be happening, which can be confusing as you are wondering whether what you are seeing is really going on (the scenes of Chang singing on stage to an unmoving audience of uniformed cops are the most notable examples and are initially WTFworthy). Additionally, the film jumps around with no clear structure or indication of where it is going. This all serves to create a surreal experience but one I found to be highly engrossing as it is left to the viewer to attempt to make some kind of sense of it all.
Many will be put off by this and, in their ‘I wish I could give it 0 stars’ reviews will say that the film is slow, boring, pointless, plotless and nonsensical. Indeed, this has happened with other films including the (in my opinion) excellent The Master. It is understandable that these do not appeal to everyone. But the big question here is, yes they may be slow (a supposed ‘insult’ which should translate as ‘doesn’t have an explosion every 20 seconds’) but are they boring, pointless, plotless and nonsensical?
In the case of OGF at least, my answer is a defiant ‘NO’. We need to look at what Winding Refn was trying to make and what it is that we are seeing. Shots come and go as if in a dream. We know next to nothing about the characters who, like the Driver in Drive and One-Eye in Valhalla Rising, are pretty much devoid of any back story or apparent motivation. Swordcop Chang appears to pull his blade out from nowhere, seemingly to pass judgement on his victims. Is any of this happening?
I believe that Winding Refn has created a fantasy film (in the director’s own words it is ‘set in a heightened reality… a fairy tale’). The ‘unrealistic’ aspects confirm this. In some ways the characters felt less like people than fantastical entities waging war. While watching, I was drawn into Bangkok as much as I was Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s films and I couldn’t look away.
Since it is not taking place in our reality, OGF must have something to say. This is where the viewer comes in and is why those who are more than happy to stick with mindless explosiony blockbusters will say that it bored them because nothing happened. It asks you to decide what it’s all about and challenges you to come up with your own ideas (perhaps some of which the director didn’t even consider, and I think that’s great!). While the film was playing I had a number of thoughts going around my head, about what – or who – Chang, Julian and Crystal represent and of course the relevance of the title. I came away having a pretty good interpretation which, in my mind at least, does give the film meaning. Is it the same interpretation Winding Refn had? Maybe. Probably not. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it makes sense to me, and I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, as will everyone else who attempts to decipher the film. The message behind Only God Forgives will make people discuss, argue and perhaps even slice off a few limbs with a katana, but any film that provokes that is a winner in my books. Whatever you think of it, it will stay in your mind for a good while, which straight away gives it one up on the vast majority of today’s generic action fare.
If you’re open to films that are weird, different and actually require that you use your noggin, I recommend that you watch Only God Forgives even if only out of curiosity and the fact that it has an absolutely banging soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (though maybe watch Drive first as a test run, it’s on Netflix). I will definitely be interested to hear how other people’s interpretations compare with mine. For now however, I leave you with a couple of quick questions for you to think about while you’re watching the film, ones that helped me come to my conclusions. They are very simple.
Does only God forgive?
What about the Devil?
And thus endeth the word of Tom.