When I walked out of Only God Forgives, I honestly didn’t know what to make of the film. It is one of the most visually stunning things I have ever seen, and the acting is phenomenal, but the story leaves a horribly empty feeling. That’s not usually the recipe for a great movie, but it sure does make for a perplexing one to review. There were minutes where I thought I absolutely loved the film, and other moments where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was actually on the screen, and not in a good way.
Usually at this paragraph of a review, I’d give a brief plot summary. I’m not sure how possible that is for this film. We follow Julian (Ryan Gosling) as he is pressured to avenge his brother’s murder, which indirectly comes at the hands of a brutal police chief. And that’s about it.
Some may say the lack of story is just Refn’s style. That his stoic, silent characters don’t provide a ton of fuel for a compelling story. Those people probably weren’t fans of Drive which shared similar techniques. The difference between this attempt and Drive is there was a rich story involved with Drive. Every scene in that film propelled the story along, sending it to its ultimate, exciting conclusion. That is not the case in Only God Forgives. Far too many scenes are just there, taking up space.
But just when you want to get all confused about the random scenes that have no place in the movie, the acting strikes you, and you realize just how spot-on all the performances are. There’s Gosling of course, who proves that there may be no one in the world better at playing the strong, stoic character. He speaks less than he ever has before, and does so much more with his eyes and subtle expressions. Every second he’s on screen is an absolute treat. Vithaya Pansringarm is also stunning as Chang. The eeriness with which he sings after every slicing episode, and the stoic manner with which he goes about his business, makes him one of the most memorable villains in any movies from this year, and most years in recent memory. From top to bottom, every performance is wonderful.
But then there’s the utter lack of motivation for all the characters. For example, Julian’s brother sets out, with no real reason for his actions, to “meet the devil.” That involves him wanting to solicit sex from a 14-year-old, and later sleeping with, and brutally murdering a young girl. There was nothing prior to that episode to indicate why he would want to undertake such horrible actions, but it gets thrown on screen nevertheless. And that’s only one example of perplexing actions by the characters that could’ve easily been given a bit clearer motivation.
But then you get to the best fight scene ever. That’s no exaggeration. It’s the most realistic, most flooring, most brutal boxing match of all time. Set in a parking lot, Julian and Chang put up their dukes to rumble. Julian, an experienced fighter, gets the crap beaten out of him by the brutal Chang. Every punch comes with the vicious crunching of bones, and there’s no slow motion or crazy camera angles to increase the drama. It’s simply one man pummeling another one into oblivion, and that makes it easily the best-choreographed fight scene I’ve ever watched.
In the end though, it seems like there’s only enough plot to Only God Forgives for a 40 minute movie. Stretching it into 90 minutes was a task that Refn should’ve handled when writing the story, as opposed to when filming scenes that do nothing for the movie. Again, it’s hard to complain too much about those scenes due to how beautiful they are, but most people who are in the market for that would be better off going to the Art Institute.
Tags: Only God forgives