Only God Forgives is a breath of fresh air that will likely choke you. Sure it is different and challenging, certainly more so than the for-the-masses produced dribble that floods the theater every week, but in this case, that is not nearly enough.
“Style over substance” is a fairly common, almost clichéd criticism of arthouse films, but here, nothing could be more accurate. Only God Forgives is a befuddled, hollow, and overly ambitious attempt at cinematic provocation that is likely to turn off more moviegoers than it impresses. Having said that, some will undoubtedly love it for all the reasons that most hate it – Only God Forgives is that polarizing “draw a line in the sand” kind of film.
The film follows Julian (a near mute and unaffecting Ryan Gosling), an American expatriate who lives in Thailand and runs a boxing gym, which in turn, is a front for a drug smuggling. When his brother is killed after murdering a teenage prostitute, Julian is torn between duty to his family and a nagging feeling that his brother got what he deserved. Things are complicated further when his mob boss-mother (a bitterly callous, yet magnetic Kristin Scott Thomas) blows into town to make sure Julian follows through on the revenge plan. At the same time, a retired cop named Chang (an ambiguously brutal Vithaya Pansringarm), who sees himself as a god-like Angel of Vengeance, is determined to administer his own brand of justice on all those involved.
Pay attention to that plot synopsis because it is much more information and backstory than you will ever get from the film. The film relishes in being cryptic and abstract for the benefit of no one, not even the film itself. Another thing the film savors is an obvious attempt at provocation. Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn did shock value right with his previous film Drive (a much, much better film starring a superior version of Gosling), so he attempts to one up it with Only God Forgives, but ends up stretching it too far with almost comical spikes of over-the-top violence and shocking dialogue.
The characters, and therefore the film, are hollow, lifeless, and unlikable. When someone dies, which many of them do, you are not happy because they died, you are just happy you do not have to see them on screen anymore. Gosling is inert and uninteresting, while Kristin Scott Thomas is mildly amusing (at first), mainly just to see what she ridiculously vile comment she will spew out next. Adding to the unexplained utter weirdness of the film is their not-so-slyly hinted at MacBeth/Oedipus-like relationship.
On the rather miniscule plus side, the film – bathed in dark shadows and neon light – looks terrific, like a dreamlike, punk version of Hell with occasional dalliances of striking imagery. But even that eventually becomes its detriment, as the film ultimately suffocates under its own dark atmosphere and foreboding intensity. Overly stylistic, the film utilizes far too many slow-motion sequences and pensive staring contests.
In the end, the film, which laughably takes itself too seriously, is too eccentric and unnecessarily psychologically complex. The film is also incredibly self-indulgent and surprisingly boring. It could have been worse though, the film could have been longer (it is only 90 minutes).
* * out of 5 stars
Only God Forgives opens this Friday, September 6 at Chalmette Movies with showtimes at 4:30 and 9:00 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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