My last post here was about Jupiter Ascending, a movie with more movie per movie than any movie before it. There was so much stuff crammed into it, you’d think that the Wachowskis siphoned the plot out from another movie to feed their beast. Having just seen Only God Forgives, I think I found the movie they took from.
I don’t mean to say that Jupiter Ascending and Only God Forgives are similar in any way shape or form. They are both movies starring actors. That’s about where the similarities end. I meant that Only God Forgives seems to have so little going on in it, Jupiter Ascending must have stolen the essence of things happening right out of the movie. This metaphor worked a lot better in my head.
Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s (every pretentious first year film student’s favorite director) follow up to his critically acclaimed film Drive. When Ryan Gosling and Refn teamed up for Drive, they pretty much took the movie world over for a brief period of time, and when they announced they’d be working together again on another film, they hype train was rolling ahead at full speed.
Only God Forgives is an arthouse revenge thriller about Julian (Gosling), a man who owns a Muy Thai boxing club in Bangkok which acts as a front for his family’s drug operations. His brother, Billy has been recently murdered after raping and killing a teenage girl, and when the family’s mother and matriarch of the gang, Crystal, shows up she sends Julian out to find out who killed Billy and exact revenge upon them.
So, in case you haven’t heard, this film is pretty divisive. And by pretty divisive, I mean really divisive. Those who like it love it and those who don’t think this film’s head is so far up its own ass, it might come back out its mouth. Don’t think about that last sentence too hard. I totally understand both sides of the coin here and for me, I seem to flip flop almost hourly over whether or not I enjoyed it. One thing I can say about it is that since watching it a couple days ago, it’s been constantly rattling around in my head. Not many films do that (the last to do that to me was Possession), so I’ve got to give credit where credit is due there.
I’m going to start with the first thing on anyone’s mind when they watch Only God Forgives: the visuals. Nicolas Winding Refn is almost synonymous with breathtaking cinematography and bathing every scene in neon lights, despite only this film and his newest The Neon Demon really falling under that category. Drive had some neon lighting in it, but it was far subtler. Drive did however, have the amazing Refn cinematography. Refn has even gone so far as to earn some imitators (despite being a Dario Argento imitator himself), off the top of my head I think of a movie like The Guest which feels Refn-esque, aping that ’80s throwback that Drive oozed so thoroughly.
Bringing things back to Only God Forgives, this movie looks phenomenal. A lot of the film is set either indoors in bars or clubs, or outside on the streets on Bangkok at night, letting most of this film’s lighting being coloured neon splashing across the screen. My expectations going in were going to be that everything on screen would be some shade of pink, yellow, blue, or green, but Refn uses a lot of pitch black space as well, moulding what’s on screen into exactly what he wants you to see, where. People’s eyes are almost always highlighted, giving us a direct portal into whatever it is that they’re feeling at the time, but Refn leaves the rest of their faces and bodies draped in shadow, making them feel distant and providing a great visual metaphor for their shrouded intentions and how we as the audience only see a part of what and who they really are (shoutout to my coworker for that one). I felt like the unnatural lighting in a lot of the movie helped created a cold, moody atmosphere that penetrated the whole film and I think that is definitely on purpose. Almost every character in Only God Forgives is just the scum of the Earth, and lighting them in harsh, oddly coloured light helps make them feel inhuman and almost alien to us. Occasionally we get instances of them in more normal lighting, and often that is in their more human moments.
Refn includes a lot of long and wide shots throughout the film, often showing either panoramic backdrops or seemingly infinitely long hallways and passages. A lot of these shots are held for what seems like an eternity, and while I first thought it always brought the film to a grinding halt whenever one of these would crop up, I quickly learned to appreciate them because of how detailed they were. Refn will give us a meticulously planned out shot that is almost completely still and hold on it for long enough that our brains go from “oh wow this is pretty” to “okay, Mr. Refn, I’m done here” and back to “oh holy shit I didn’t even notice all these little things in the frame, this is so pretty”. That being said, as much as I loved shots like that, they added to the main problem I have with Only God Forgives.
It’s way to fucking long.
This movie is an hour and a half long, on the dot. The Transformers movies are longer than Only God Forgives. The problem is that Only God Forgives feels like it’s longer than the extended version of Return of the King. And this is a real shame to me because if it were shorter by maybe half an hour or forty five minutes, I would love it. As much as I totally dig the visual style and looking at Ryan Gosling’s face, the avant-garde styling of this movie doesn’t hold up for an hour and a half straight. When nothing really happens for stretches at a time between all the plot points, the neon lights and half-of-people’s-faces-staring-into-the-distance gets old real fast. I said it was a shame that this movie feels so long, and I really am miffed about it, because it’s really only one thing that I think is fundamentally wrong with the movie, but it magnifies and intensifies everything else I didn’t like about the film. Things that I would consider nit-picks in other movies felt like glaring errors in Only God Forgives because I was bored and annoyed over how slow it was. Maybe I’m just too used to modern films moving at a speed that hold the seven second attention span of the modern moviegoer, or that I’m way too into movies like Crank and Crank: High Voltage, but when the film gives you enough time to sit and absorb everything about it you’re bound to start picking it apart, just to find something to do.
I’m not going to bother explaining the loose narrative or heavy symbolism in Only God Forgives because:
- I don’t think they are too complicated or too deep for anyone to understand if they think about it a little bit. There’s a lot of symbolism and some surreality (not a word, I know) going on, but have a little imagination and you can piece it all together.
- It’s covered super duper in depth by everyone ever who has seen the film and has an outlet to write or record their thoughts on it. I don’t think too much is left up to interpretation in Only God Forgives, and all of my thoughts are pretty in line with the general internet consensus. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion.
Only God Forgives is an incredibly memorable movie, and for that I commend it greatly. It drags, which is truly unfortunate, but it looks absolutely gorgeous, and has some interesting themes and even more interesting characters. If you ever want to see some divine, righteous vengeance dropped on some truly damaged, broken, and twisted characters, watch Only God Forgives. After writing over 1300 words about it, I still don’t know if I like this movie or not. I definitely think it’s worth checking out, if only because it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.