I’m not sure if this one’s on my tip top list of excellent arty films, but it’s pretty damn good. Definitely rewatchable. Definitely enjoyable. And the police chief’s song still plays around in my head on a regular basis. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s odd in the most appealing way.
Without spoilers, our main topic for this film needs to be the negative reviews. By now, it’s that rather than the initial furore at another Refn-Gosling film to fall in love with. Though it’s worth mentioning that, reunited in Only God Forgives, they add another newly, brilliantly, dark and yet lovable character to Ryan’s panoply. I’ve heard others, many others, say the whole film’s a load of hogwash that’s trying too hard to be strange, sacrificing plot and character for a beautiful cinematic appearance and a few good action sequences. Those people are wrong. They’re just not looking hard enough. This, being an arty film, does a lot through suggestion and generally refuses to give clear answers. Who are these people really? Good or evil? Is there forgiveness? Well, it’s sort of up to you. There are hints all over the place and you choose what to take. This is how arty films work. A lot of people who watched Only God Forgives thought it was going to be a bit out there, but still basically possess the delightful accessibility of Drive. Again, they were wrong. Well, largely. This is a lot clearer than something like Un Chien Andalou (who’s heard of that anyway?) but still likely to leave you a little mystified on the first couple viewings.
What Refn is trying to do is create a cinematic masterpiece. It’s therefore shifting steadily towards what in books we’d call “literary fiction”. Trying to show as much as possible with the scene, the tone set by the lighting and setting, the sounds of the city, the curling bass and reverb. Trying to tell a story with pictures and real, genuinely real dialogue. In other words, lack of dialogue. A film that I think does this perfectly is a little number called In Sylvie’s City or Dans la Ville de Sylvie. It asks you to devote an amount of energy and concentration to the picture that you rarely would with an average movie, even one with depth. But if you do give it that effort, you’re immersed like never before. Hanging off every detail in this visual…paradise. Where films like Inception get you involved by non-stop action and confusing if legit-looking plot twists, the cinematic steps back completely. It presents you with a set of particularly beautiful points of view and leaves it at that. You don’t care? Okay. You think it’s the best film you’ve ever seen? Okay. Perhaps where people get a bit confused is that they’re seeing Gosling on the screen, and they’re having pretty regular hits of violence. Maybe ultra-violence, although I think that label’s getting a bit out of date now. They assume this actor is going to be in a certain sort of film, and they assume the violence is supposed to indicate the presence of that sort of film. But that’s not what’s happening. Gosling is asked to speak even more with his meaningful silences than usual. Pose even more moral questions. Seem even more of an unsung and very human being. And I think he succeeds in this, rather than, as one reviewer wrote, seeming to be on the verge of a particularly dull occurrence of narcolepsy at all times.
The violence. The violence in this isn’t meant to draw people in, I suspect. There’s too much real viscera for it to be going along Die Hard lines, and too much hidden for it to be like Kill Bill. I think it’s just trying to make you uncomfortable. Which is, forgive me if I’m wrong, what violence is meant to do? And so I think, perhaps more clearly than in a number of other Refn films, the violence in Only God Forgives is trying to talk to us about the human condition. About those times when we want to be violent to solve our problems. About how brutal it is in reality. And about how we can successfully cope with it. There’s a realism to it that action movies tend not to have, but there’s also that convoluted “this is an Asian film where limbs are removed and eyes are gouged” sort of feel. I can see why that’d put some people off, but really I don’t feel as if there’s a bit of blood that doesn’t suit the characters or their world. That’s real and provoking enough for me.
I don’t want to go into too much more detail. There’s only so much I’d want to describe since I know if I do any more you’d go into the film expecting to see xyz and it might not be there for you exactly as it was for me. Whereas if you’d seen it you might be telling me “yeah, I remember that bit. Fantastic.” Basically, if it’s still on at a cinema anywhere and you’re willing to put some effort in, grab a coffee and go to see this film. The lazy reviewers are lazy and can’t be bothered to watch it rather than look at it whilst it’s playing on the screen (sorry folks, but it’s true). Once you’ve seen it once, see it again. Then give it a break and see it again a little way down the line. Maybe not in a cinema. The first two times you’ll emerge blinking into the daylight or shivering into the cold night air with a brilliant sense of revelation. You’re not sure about what, but you’ll feel as though either a weight has been lifted from your shoulders, or that one has just been sneakily inserted into your brain. It will please. But don’t expect to think “I got that, that’s so relateable and so comprehensible” at first. But with some effort, that might come, and it’ll feel pretty good when it does.
As far as cinematic wonders go, minimum of 8/10, and I don’t give out high ratings like A grades at a private school. 8/10 is very, very good. Go watch it. Go enjoy.