Nicolas Winding Refn’s "Only God Forgives" is a film with so much padding, you scarcely realize that there’s a story going on. Directors have been known to fall for a condition commonly known as “style over substance,” but Refn manages to take that to such an extreme, you begin to wonder if the screenplay was more than a couple of pages long at the outset of the project. With so little in the way of story, it’s not long before the effect begins to take hold, leading you to wish for nothing more than a strong cup of coffee in your hand to fight off the overwhelming urge to catch a nap.
The brief narrative involves Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke), who are involved with a fighting ring in Bangkok. When Billy murders a prostitute, it is not long before the girl’s father takes his revenge on him, aided by a sadistic police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Upon news of Billy’s murder, the brothers’ mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to Bangkok and urges Julian to take revenge. Despite knowing who did the actual killing, it becomes quite a different matter to find out who else was involved.
It’s one thing to call a film boring, but I’ve never found that to be a very helpful description in my years of cinematic viewing. What does help is to understand why it is that a film is boring. For "Only God Forgives," the scarce story begins to answer the question, but the other side of it is the characters themselves. Refn doesn’t build them up in any way. Instead, he’s content to drag them through the film by their heals, hoping that the audience will eventually begin to sympathize with Julian, Crystal, and their quest for vengeance.
The problem is we never do care because Refn seems too distracted and bogged down with his attempt to make the film as pretty as possible. The effort shows, as the production design is startlingly beautiful, but what is it all for if we don’t find ourselves engaged in the material at hand? He seems to have thought of the story and characters as more as an afterthought, but even then giving them such little attention that neither thrives to the level of the audience becoming enthralled with either.
You may recall Refn’s name from the film "Drive" a couple of years back. There was a great film with style, substance, and everything in between. It masterfully incorporated expertly-crafted chases, a touching relationship, and an engaging story, all with the benefit of Ryan Gosling’s finely-tuned performance. Two years later, we find Gosling practically sleepwalking through his role as Julian, but again, it’s not really his fault for how little character development was incorporate into the screenplay.
The blame lies with Refn, who not only directed, but also did the writing this time out (for "Drive," Hossein Amini had crafted the screenplay). His inattention to the story is made clear when it takes until about the last 15 minutes for him to get around to settling down and focusing on it, but even then, he puts together a choppy finale that leads up to a completely unsatisfactory and ambiguous conclusion. Perhaps this is simply a sign that he should concentrate more on the field of directing rather than trying to handle both that and the writing.
I would hope that Refn would learn from the mistakes made here so that they’re not repeated again. He has such obvious talents, shown clearly in "Drive" (for which he received a BAFTA nomination), that I would hate to see him fade away after this misfire. If anything, he needs to learn that story and characters (i.e. the foundation) need to come first. They can’t be second, third, or any kind of afterthought, and they certainly can’t come behind the look of the film. With this little lesson in mind, hopefully we’ll see him bounce right back to the top where we know he belongs
Turning now to the specs, the film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that is a noticeably sub-par presentation compared to most Blu-rays. Much of the picture is blurry, which is a shame given all the time and effort put into the look of the film. You'd think with that being its one major positive element that they'd give it the best treatment possible, but sadly even the studio seems to have realized that it wasn't worth the effort. On the other hand, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is top-notch. Given that music plays a pretty big part in the film, it's good to see that it at least got proper treatment here.
The following special features are included on the disc:
- Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Nicolas Winding Refn
- Behind the Scenes
- Director Interviews
- The Music of Only God Forgives with Cliff Martinez
The commentary and interviews with Refn are somewhat irritating in that he tries to make the film sound deeper than it actually is, but at the very least it was somewhat interesting to hear what he was trying to go for with this mess. The music featurette is somewhat informative as Martinez describes how he came up with some of the tracks for the film and the different kings of instruments he used. The best inclusion in these extras is the "Behind the Scenes" featurette, which runs about 20 minutes and features Refn on set as he attempts to put various scenes together on the spot. While the film obviously didn't work out as well as he'd hoped, it's still fascinating to watch his creative process.
Unfortunately there's not much of anything to recommend about this release. "Only God Forgives" is a disaster, posed to be on many worst-of lists at the end of the year, there's only one extra that's really worth watching, and even the quality of the transfer is left wanting. Pretty much the only thing to recommend at this juncture is to go back, rewatch "Drive," and remember Refn's better days.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.