Let me just say this off the bat: DO NOT GO INTO THIS FILM EXPECTING DRIVE 2!
I get the feeling that people will flock to this film for either the above reason, or simply to perve on Ryan Gosling. But what you will get is 90 minutes of full on art-house filmmaking. Because of this the film is not at all geared towards a multiplex audience. In fact if it weren’t for the fact that director Nicolas Winding Refn is still riding off Drive’s success, you can guarantee that this film would only have made it to the smallest of independent and niche cinemas.
The story sees an American man, Billy, killed by the Thai police force for raping and murdering a young girl. It is left up to his weak younger brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) to take vengeance on his brother’s killers, and in doing so make good in the eyes of his foul mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Given the subject matter and the performances the film’s characters all have it coming to them. Nobody has any redeeming qualities and all seem trapped in a kind of punishment filled purgatory. Much torture, death, dismemberment and extended periods of silences follow.
The film is hugely accomplished technically. It really is stunningly beautiful to look at. Winding Refn knows exactly how to frame everything he shoots, to the point that every scene looks like a painting. But it is this very thing that makes the film fairly inaccessible.
When you go to an art gallery, you stare at the masterpieces in front of you and you can’t help but marvel at the work and creative talent that has gone into them. But you probably don’t have an enormous amount of fun. You just have a great deal of admiration. I came out of Only God Forgives feeling this way. I have a massive amount of respect for what I saw. I respect that I could not have produced anything like it myself. I respect its originality. I respect Winding Refn’s commitment to deliver his strong vision without compromising. But I didn’t have a lot of fun. I wasn’t engaged with the story or the characters. In fact I felt very much detached….Maybe that’s what I was supposed to feel….I’m sure it’s open to interpretation.
Like Drive there are great moments of character development and emotional understanding that are achieved without any dialogue, but unlike Drive these are not integrated in a traditional narrative that involves the audience and carries through to an obvious conclusion. Instead Only God Forgives leaves us to ponder on what we’ve seen. It gives us multiple possibilities and demands that we interpret the events for ourselves. Was it all real? Were we trapped in Julian’s pseudo-sexual fantasies? Or did we see the Devil personified and exacting horrendous punishment on the wicked people in the world? It really can be taken as far as we want.
So in short this is not a film for everyone. In fact I would say those that truly love this film will find themselves in the minority. But I have little doubt that the vast majority of film lovers will come away with a great deal of respect, admiration and their minds suitably messed with by an auteur for the modern age.