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Only God Forgives: Expectations and Eccentricity

September 12, 2013

Only God Forgives movie poster

Only God Forgives is another chapter in Nicolas Windin Refn’s eccentric book of film. It is brutal, soaked in red hues, lovely to look at and certain to alienate. Men are tortured, women are beat and the stuff that comes out of Kristen Scott Thomas’s mouth would make Mr. Blonde blush. You are spending time with the scum of humanity and asked to watch torture, depravity and geysers of blood. Only God Forgives takes us into the damaged psyche of a man who grew up with a psychopathic family. In true Refn tradition he doesn’t say much and occasionally makes people bleed. He is scared to use his hands and knows what happens when he does.

Only God Forgives is a misunderstood story of consequences. The film was lambasted at Cannes and the critics seems to have forgotten that Refn made films before Drive. When looking at the top critic section of OGFs Rotten Tomatoes page words like pretentious, overwrought, disaster, preposterous, shlockfest and barf appear frequently. There are several critics whom favored the film. Damon Wise of Empire magazine gave the film five stars and wrote

“The surest way to differentiate Only God Forgives from its predecessor is to say Drive was a Ryan Gosling movie directed by Winding Refn, and this time the tables have turned: Gosling is making a guest appearance in a Winding Refn movie.”

Critics should not be surprised by the hyper-violence, religious tones and blatant mysticism of OGF. Valhalla Rising focused on the crusades and suggestions that the lead character was from Hell. Ryan Gosling’s jacket in Drive was an unsubtle play on the Scorpion and the Frog fable. Refn’s themes have always been in the open so it was interesting to read the criticism. Critics scoffed at Refn’s quote that “The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God.” In the film Gosling’s older brother peruses Bangkok doing whatever he wants. He has money, muscle and a superiority complex granted to him from his insane mother. A sociopathic murderer with delusions of grandeur has no fear of the supernatural. However, the brother pushes his luck via murder, annoys a supernatural karaoke lover and ends up with a smashed head and revengeful mother. 

Gosling’s character in Drive would make short work of the quick-tempered young man in Only God Forgives. Gosling’s character Julian lives in a world similar to hell. He is his mother’s unbeknownst pitbull who literally asks a godlike being “wanna fight?” He is plagued by his conscience, surrounded by evil (cue red lights) and controlled by his mom (He will have the spicy chicken).  Julian has no problem hurting drunk bar patrons but when told of how his brother died refuses to kill the culprit. He knows the father was avenging the murder of his 16 daughter and allowed the man to walk away. However, his mother arrives and chastises him for not avenging the loss. She says “I’m sure he had his reasons” in regards to the crime and her actions ignite 90 minutes of violence.

The film has been pummeled for being too violent. The violence is impressively nasty but no different from Refn’s other works (Christina Hendricks head blows up in Drive). It has been interesting reading the critics dogpile the film and it reminded me of the reactions to Oblivion and To the Wonder. The film left enough of an opening and the critics pushed open the door with their complaints. Critics saw the film as vapid and pretentious. I saw an incredibly messed up family and a guy who hasn’t gone to the dark side yet. It is a struggle of conscience and masculinity that occasionally gets so violent I had to look away. If Valhalla Rising  can accrue 71% on RT than I’m not sure why Only God Forgives was rotten. I understand the complaints but I find the inconsistencies in criticism to be fascinating.  

Only God Forgives suffered from expectations and critics expecting a more mainstream friendly director. It is not an easy to recommend and I’d wager the majority of the population looking for a Drive/Crazy Stupid Love hybrid will turn the film off early. However, the violence, static shots and color should come as no surprise and thus be more palatable to Refn completists. I’m not sure what that the critics were expecting but it certainly wasn’t Only God Forgives.  

Only God Forgives poster


11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2013 4:46 pm

    To be honest I thought I was going to be in your shoes, defending this movie from all the haters. Unfortunately, after viewing it I was less than impressed. It looks great has lots of cool symbolism and simply hating on the film for violence is lame. Somehow this film just didn’t work for me. I loved VR, Bronson and all 3 Pusher films, for me anyway this is my least favorite of Refn’s films. Not to say it is as terrible as critics have been labeling it.

  2. September 12, 2013 4:57 pm

    I totally get it. I can’t fully describe it but OGF had a detached feeling and lacked an amazing performance (Bronson), fever dream cinematography (VR) and sweet music montages (Drive). I did like the story but it never drew me in like the other films. I remember them blasting my senses. Thanks for commenting!

    • November 30, 2013 5:39 pm

      I did like the karaoke scenes. I thought these worked better than the music in Drive.

      • November 30, 2013 5:44 pm

        I loved the karaoke scenes! God Forgives isn’t his best but I was surprised at the critical backlash. I did love the line “wanna fight.” That was really cool.

  3. September 13, 2013 12:59 pm

    I expected this to be a weird-ass movie, and that’s exactly what I got. Anybody that expected anything different, deserved to hate this movie because they didn’t know what they were walking into. I did, and I rather liked what I saw. Good review.

  4. November 30, 2013 5:37 pm

    I would agree this is not Refn’s best, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I thought Drive was pretentious. I did not enjoy that.


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