It hasn't been easy to ignore the disapproval that has been brewing online since the Cannes debut of Only God Forgives, the new film from Drive collaborators Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn. People have gone so far as to call the film "one of the worst ever made". Of all time? Seriously? Can it really be that bad?
The trailer, which worked for me, was packed to the rafters with classic Refn tropes (to use a literary expression): Stylized violence, breathtaking color palettes, meditative characters. That is more or less, Nicolas Winding Refn's style (at least thus far). And so, I was able to go into the film with a wide open mind.
But unfortunately Only God Forgives is too esoteric, too self-important and too (hate to drop such an overused word) pretentious a screenplay to fully engage.
Julian (Ryan Gosling, whose name might be a reference to Paul Schrader's American Gigolo.) is an Expat boxing instructor, living/ working in Thailand with his brother Billy (Tom Burke; BBC's The Hour), with whom he deals heroin on the side. After Billy is killed (no spoilers here, this film is already light enough on plot), their Mother (The English Patient's Kristin Scott Thomas as the most loathsome character in a sea of creeps and psychos) arrives in town seeking revenge.
Much too often, we find ourselves stuck in dark rooms with nasty, (arguably) off-putting people. Billy has a line of dialogue that will undoubtedly inspire a few walk-outs at every screening. In fact, the only 'likable' character in the film is Gosling's Julian. (Until the third act, much of his likability seems merely based on the fact that he is played by a movie star.) But even Julian has moments of bizarrely motivated cruelty that pop up out of nowhere.
A scene in a vacant alley between Julian and a prostitute borders on actual misogyny. In fact, the treatment of every female character in the film seemed a tad offensive. They're all either silently subservient or foul-mouthed sadists. Not to say that the males come across much better. This is a film in which our blue-eyed hero forces a girl --screaming at her-- to publicly strip off her clothes. And mind you, he's supposed to be the nicer one.
Refn is a very talented filmmaker, who still manages to elevate this poetic/ tough guy material into scenes of genuine cinematic beauty. He has made wonderful films in the past and that visual talent is unquestionably on display here. His work with cinematographer Larry Smith is stunning, showing off a side of Thailand that appears even seedier and yet simultaneously more gorgeous than anything we've seen before. And the allusion of bruises as war-paint on Gosling's face are a rakishly sophisticated touch, adding another dimension to this otherwise somber, brutish man.
The problem is that Drive, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, even his critically lauded Pusher Trilogy are all rich with wonderfully written stories-- scripts as fascinating to read as the films are to watch. (All of which I highly recommend.)
To value visual stylization over narrative is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the greatest filmmakers who have ever lived did exactly that. Towering names like Lars Von Trier, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky (to whom Only God Forgives is dedicated) whose work transcends the medium of film. These men are true artists. And if Nicolas Winding Refn is not a man of similar ilk, he at least aspires to be.
Only God Forgives is not the worst film of all time, as "everyone" seems to be claiming. Far from it. But it is a totally inexplicable one. Perhaps it just stings a little more because Refn's other work has been so gosh-darn great.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.