Last Friday I attempted to view two films. The Conjuring went off without a hitch, but earlier in the day my screening of Red 2 was rudely interrupted by a massive thunderstorm that knocked power out to the entire theater. On the plus side, I was given a ticket for one free film. On the negative side, I absolutely cannot watch a movie twice on the big screen unless I really, really love it. Even though I was only 40 minutes in, I already knew that I did not love Red 2.
What then is a man to do? Well, I was going to check out R.I.P.D. midweek and get that to you, but between the middling reviews and the fact that roughly 805,000 other outlets had already given their two cents I decided to get clever.
You see, there are some films out there that are releasing simultaneously in theaters and Video On Demand (VOD). These are sometimes very excellent films that just never received enough financial backing to do a full rollout. Others are art-house movies that release on just a few screens to meet Oscar criteria.
After paying Amazon On-Demand $6.99 and trying to sit still for 90 minutes, I am quite convinced that Only God Forgives falls under the second category.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film after 2011’s critically acclaimed Drive, Only God Forgives reunites him with Ryan Gosling, once again playing a mostly-silent protagonist. Except, well, neither he nor anyone else here is really a protagonist. I suppose Gosling’s character Julian comes closest to meeting the requirements, but unlike Drive there are no good people here.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Everyone in Only God Forgives is fucked up in the head. In some way, each person in front of the camera has serious, unaddressed mental issues. A mere 5 minutes into the film someone claims that they “want to find and fuck a 14 year old girl.” You think that’s horrifying? You haven’t even been introduced to the worst characters yet! Although it has been a while since the words ‘cum dumpster’ were muttered on film. So there’s that.
This is truly an artistic take on the revenge film. Older brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered after he rapes and murders a teenage girl. When Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to bury her oldest son, she is enraged at the fact that Julian has done nothing to bring his brother’s killer to justice.
Using her acerbic wit, bitter tongue and impressive manipulation skills, she sets out to ensure that the man responsible is brought to vigilante justice. The only problem is that the man who engineered Billy’s death, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), is not just a police officer. He happens to also be a much respected, feared, and skilled killer in his own right.
This all sounds like it has the set-up to be an amazing action-revenge film, doesn’t it? American mobsters in Bangkok, butting heads with the local authorities, each group seeking their own form of justice! What’s not to like? Wait, did I forget to mention that this is a Nicolas Winding Refn film? There are probably only a few hundred words in the entire movie, and nearly 1/3 of them are either insults, derogatory, or downright disturbing. Want an example? Sure.
Julian: “He raped and killed a 16 year old girl.”
Crystal: “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Then there’s the camera and the color. The first half of the film is almost exclusively red. The walls are red, the wallpaper is red, the beds are red and the theme is red. The movie does brighten up a bit as time goes on, but it is obvious that each scene’s lighting was specifically chosen to accentuate the mood that Mr. Refn was going for. In some instances it really does a good job of highlighting character emotions, but it does make the first thirty minutes or so incredibly bleak. Throw in the fact that the camera itself only films in two modes–still or psychotic–and you’ve got yourself a very ‘artistic’ movie.
Finally, there is the violence. If you have ever seen a Nicolas Winding Refn film, you know that he does not shy away from violence. The Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, and Drive were all very visceral at times. Only God Forgives not only refuses to shy away from violence, it ups the ante by a considerable amount. In fact, there is a torture scene that can only be compared to the end of Audition. That’s the only movie I can think of that made me squirm in my seat as much as this one.
Is Only God Forgives any good? Well, I really have to say that it depends on your definition of good. Did you like Killing Them Softly? If so, you’ll absolutely love this one. They’re both mostly independent films with more of an ‘idea’ than a plot, they’re both well-shot, beautifully constructed and incredibly disjointed. This is not a summer blockbuster. It can barely be described as a film, but I’m glad it exists as a counter-offer to the usual popcorn fare.
Only God Forgives: C