Tuesday, September 10, 2013


In 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling teamed up to put together the smash hit DRIVE; a stylistic crime thriller which entertained as much as it did fascinate. Here in 2013, Refn and Gosling collaborate again for ONLY GOD FORGIVES; another crime film which is heavy on style but light everywhere else.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run an underground Thai boxing club. Billy is murdered and their mother/family boss Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives to enact revenge against his killers, which involves the sadistic and murdering police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

ONLY GOD FORGIVES has a very simple and thin plot consisting of revenge and eye-for-an-eye. With so little story, director Nicolas Winding Refn relies on the presentation to beef up the interest and seemingly the running-time. The story unfolds with very little dialogue and is displayed through long, sweeping camera moves, bizarre dream-like sequences, a few outbursts of violence and some scattered naked body-builders and karaoke (not making that last part up). The film wants us to believe that there is allegory going on, but offers no hints as to what all the music and colors are all about. It’s pure style over substance as the story and characters exist in an empty, albeit beautiful-looking screen.
Nicolas Winding Refn has created one of the most stunning-looking films in recent memory. His work with lights and shadows and music is excellent; you don’t want to blink out of fear of ruining every visual moment. The flashes of violence seem to be timed out well, but the pacing of the film, which is a constant stop-start-stop-start, is frustrating as there is never a groove, rhythm, or heartbeat to be found. His characters exist only to recite a few lines here and there and are never developed past their first names.

Acting is tough to judge as no one really acts. Ryan Gosling doesn’t do much other than his typical blank and lifeless stare (save for one moment), but he does get to do some decent physical work once in a while. Kristin Scott Thomas gets the most lines and the most work, and pulls off an unlikeable character very well.
By the time ONLY GOD FORGIVES wraps, audiences are guaranteed to be scratching their heads because they (a) don’t know what they just saw, and (b) can’t decide if they enjoyed it or not. It’s more of an experimental exercise than a traditional film, which is an approach that can be appreciated more than enjoyed. It’s 95% style and 5% story, and often feels like Refn took a handful random dreams he once had and loosely sewed them together. Beautiful to look at, but almost unwatchable. Almost.


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