Drive is a rare film that is stoic, slow, stylish, and extremely violent, that somehow crossed over enough into the mainstream culture of film and become universally liked. Hell, my mom enjoyed it. Only God Forgives shares those exact same traits, and the lead actor, of Drive. This is in many ways extremely similar to Drive. Yet those “average” film goers who even dug Drive a little bit, will likely loathe this film. Why is that? Is it the expectation that similar territory should be equally adored, which is usually not the case? I NEVER expected something like Drive would be something people would latch onto after I saw it, with its bleak and dim story, the themes of failed redemption, and a lead character that I don’t think we’re supposed to identify with, let alone understand. This will get the reaction I expected from the general public on Drive. To clarify, I’m not saying I hated Only God Forgives one bit…I’m just saying YOU probably will. Did you like Enter the Void? Exactly, that’s what I thought. Unless you said yes, then let’s be friends.
On a very basic level, the film is a tale of revenge: A man murders a prostitute and is killed for it. His drug dealing brother is enlisted by their mob kingpin mother to exact revenge on those responsible for his death. Meanwhile a former cop chops off arms. Then they face off. Ultimately, there’s not a lot on the surface to chew into, and we’re treated to a “discussion” on life, death, mortality, redemption, loss, and pain. Lots of pain. The film is unflinchingly brutal, though those familiar with Refn’s filmography should show no surprise to that, though this feels remorseful in the least. ”Gritty” is the overused term used to describe dark stories of this nature, but the contrast is that there are vibrant hues everywhere in the seedy underworld of Thailand our story takes place in. Neon lights, heavily saturated rooms of red and blue and yellow, and warm streetlights highlight all around our characters. This really reflects one of the major influences on this film, Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which is similarly coated and saturated with vibrant colors in an ugly world. The two share much in common in terms of tone, style, and a lack of surface substance while underlying is tons of subtext and meditation. Where Enter the Void requires a second viewing to truly appreciate fully, I have doubts that Only God Forgives will have the same effect in repeated watches. Where Refn’s Drive had a lot to say without being said, this film doesn’t actually have much in the way of interpretation to give it purpose. The real stand out is Ryan Gosling’s character, an extension of his nameless man in Drive, where everything you need to know about the man is on his face. Few actors can give you a character simply from the eyes, but he can. Then again, one could argue that most of Refn’s lead characters are the exact same person, reincarnated. Think about it.
Before Drive put Refn on the “auteur” map in the US he directed a film called Valhalla Rising, which does right what so much of Only God Forgives attempts to accomplish. Big, stylish visuals, buckets of gore, a mysterious, stoic lead — the entire movie is about the inevitability of death and the struggle of life…and that’s it. The rest is a visual trip into nightmares and the surreal, a psychedelic trip viking film if there ever was one. I’ve never gotten much more than a bleak but beautiful tale from the film because it doesn’t appear to have more lofty goals. Only God Forgives gives off the impression that it DOES have higher meaning and ultimately doesn’t. You realize there are only empty promises once the credits role to karaoke. Karaoke, I swear.
The quirks and the bizarre, unidentifiable characters are a staple of Refn’s films all the way back to his fantastic debut Pusher (it’s two sequels Refn did are both excellent too). So to has Refn’s style first and substance second approach to filmmaking, though he’s definitely become much more interested in this lately. Nothing here is particularly ENGAGING enough to pull the common viewer in. He’d rather leave the viewer to decipher the code injected into his projects than spell it out or make it “entertaining.” Too much of this starts to almost feel selfish, as if he’s more interested in shooting pretty images and graphic violence and seeing what sticks in the editing room to make something sort of cohesive. I can’t imagine what Only God Forgives‘ script would actually be, as there’s so very little framework felt here. God’s not the only one who forgives, though; I’ll forgive Nicolas Wending Refn’s indulgences like this and gladly see whatever he tackles until he stops making films. He’s earned enough credit and even his baffling productions like this one are far more interesting than most of what modern artists are producing. I’d rather see a film that’s all balls than a castrated one, and if you feel the same Only God Forgives is worth a look.
The film is available On Demand right now, and available on Blu-ray and DVD October 22nd.