Only God Forgives (2013)

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives is not a pleasant experience. Watching it is akin to letting viscous ichor fill your veins. It’s like a David Lynch take on a spaghetti-western tale of revenge; the deep rumbling bass tones, thick shadows and vibrant, hellish reds channel Lynch’s style. The dark, labyrinthine corridors that contain Julian (Ryan Gosling)’s Bangkok apartment evoke Lost Highway, while his hallucinatory flirtation with his dancer girlfriend capture Lynch’s sense of the absurd, intercut with unexplained, preening bodybuilders. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s use of static shots and slow, implacable zooms draws the audience into the film like aghast spectators at a terrible accident.

Refn’s film has a received a profoundly negative critical reaction and it’s somewhat justified. When Only God Forgives tries to explicate its Oedipal themes in the last act, it reveals that it’s fundamentally thematically hollow, or at least anaemic. But the dismissal of the film as style over substance is misguided when that style is so aggressively enthralling. This is a reptilian brain film; fighting and fucking and spare archetypes – THE FIGHTER, THE GIRLFRIEND, THE MATRIARCH, THE DEVIL – with its scarce, minimalist dialogue contrasted by its maximalist artificiality. Stands among the best, not worst, films of 2013.

Rating: 167/200

20 thoughts on “Only God Forgives (2013)

  1. I’d have to watch this again. I loved everything about it aesthetically, but couldn’t engage with it at all. This review is great though, again makes me want to see it again.

    • It’s an interesting film, in that I like a lot of things about it but can totally see why someone could hate it. I love the way it deconstructs this (very filmic) notion of masculinity rooted in revenge and violence, but I find the Oedipal stuff (SPOILERS: he kills his father and litterally tries to climb back into the womb?) clumsy and poorly thought out. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

      • Yeah, I remember finding the Oedipal stuff and bit jarring and clumsy. Refn is a beautiful director though and I definitely need to track down his pre-Drive work – I think a lot of my problems with Only God Forgives came from basically expecting Drive in Bangkok – I didn’t like the movie, but I do admire how he came back after a commercially/critically loved movie with something so out there!

        On an unrelated note, how is Lost Highway? It’s the only Lynch film I’ve never got round to seeing, was thinking of checking it out tonight.

      • It’s interesting? Very dark, surprising, almost pop-Lynch in some ways (very late ’90s aesthetic, down to the Marilyn Manson and Rammstein soundtrack). I really like it, but it took me a few views to really get behind it. Like a lot of Lynch films, it’s better once you get a sense of what’s going on. Long story short, I’d certainly recommend it!

      • Sounds interesting, though strange choice of music – I’m used to his dreamy synths and 50s songs! I’ll have to check it out. I’ve heard it’s pretty out there and that bodes well for me 🙂

    • Yeah, this has convinced me that I really need to hunt down Refn’s pre-Drive work. Pusher and Valhalla Rising are both high on my “to-watch” list.

  2. Nice one Dave. It is completely understandable why some wouldn’t take to this but I thought it was a very interesting piece of work. It wasn’t entirely successful but Refn deserves respect for his minimalist and symbolic approach to storytelling here.

  3. Well. I am one of the many who think this far from good. Yes it’s beautifully made and yes Refn has an knack for artistry, but the characters and story might as well be non-existent, so I had a difficult time caring about any of it.

    • Yeah, I can respect that, as I’ve said. The plot and characters are minimal to the point of nonexistent but I still found myself engaged. I think that’s what it comes down to with a film like this – either it’s got you or it doesn’t.

  4. Honestly, what a waste of time (not your review – the film haha). Firstly, Refn should have kept the film completely silent considering how awful the dialogue was. Refn makes his film more about the mood than anything else, but when everything else is embarrassingly falling apart, its hard to let the mood take over. Gosling is unfortunately stuck playing a dull character that I don’t feel he had the right presence for, and when he finally shows some emotion it becomes so over the top, it’s laughable.

    I love me some Kristen Scott Thomas, but she came across very amateurish.

    Nice review, but Only God Forgives stands as one of the worst films of the year for me.

    • I take your point about it being better as a silent film: pretty much all the problems I have with Only God Forgives have to do with what comes out of the characters’ mouths! I personally found the mood of the film engaging, but I can totally respect that it might not work for others.

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