Only God Forgives * * * *

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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Byron Gibson.

After the success of “Drive” in 2011, another collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling was highly anticipated. Now that we are delivered the results with “Only God Forgives“, many have been left disappointed and, from many corners, it has received very harsh criticism. It doesn’t possess the postmodern cool of their previous effort but what it does have, is art house and depth written all over it.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a US ex-pat living in Bangkok, where he runs a Mauy Thai boxing club and a family drug business behind the scenes. Things begin to go wrong, though, when his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed with the involvement of local police Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). This, in turn, brings the arrival of Julian’s sadistic mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge her first born’s death. Julian soon realises that they are up against someone who will not be stopped.

For some, this will be a sumptuous five star experience while others will (understandably) criticise it for it’s perceived pretension and ambiguity. It’s a very difficult film to rate and I can’t give it any less than I have, simply because I do believe that there’s substance contained within. The plot summary above, makes it all sound very straight forward but it’s far from that. If truth be told, I didn’t entirely understand it but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. That’s a fault that rests with me rather than the filmmaker and I think this is the problem that many people are criticising it for – not to mention, Gosling fans’ annoyance at his distinct lack of dialogue.
Anyone familiar with Winding Refn movies, will quickly realise that this type of filmmaking is actually the norm for him and much closer to his idiosyncratic style than “Drive” ever was. It’s filled with symbolism, metaphors and spirituality and categorically, it simply isn’t the action movie that most viewers were expecting. Credit has to be given to Winding Refn and Gosling for their bravery here. They refuse to try and recreate their previous magic and deliver a whole new experience. There are others deserving of mention here too, Larry Smith’s spellbinding cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and entirely authentic in capturing both the beauty and the beast of the city of Bangkok, while Cliff Martinez evokes a foreboding score. The biggest revelation, though, is a bleach-blonde, foul mouthed, Kristin Scott Thomas as the dangerous matriarch Crystal, where every time she’s onscreen she absolutely chews it up. It’s an outstanding, against-type, performance from the once (“Four Weddings and a Funeral“) English rose. Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang is also worthy of note with his cold, supernatural, god-like, approach and wielding his own form of justice with the aid a samurai sword that he keeps on his person. He can be seen as the phallus to Scott Thomas’ yonis, leaving the lost and soulful Gosling with an Oedipal complex and dreamlike imaginings of castration – symbolically represented by the loss of his hands. Events don’t exactly make sense on a first time viewing but this is a film that demands repeated efforts to fully capture it’s themes. It has the similar surrealist approaches of directors David Lynch and more importantly Alejandro Jodorowsky (to whom the film is dedicated) and there’s no questioning Refn’s stylistic abilities.

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Is it for everyone? Most certainly not, but it will appeal to those who enjoy uncompromising, art-house minimalism and don’t rely on a storyline where everything is linear and readily explained. It’s ambitious and experimental and you probably won’t see a more polarising film all year.

Mark Walker

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69 Responses to “Only God Forgives * * * *”

  1. Nice review Mark. This one was certainly not for me though.

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    • Thanks man. I can completely understand you not taking to it. I was like that on my first viewing but it stayed with me and after another go, my opinion was quite high.

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      • GaryLee828 Says:

        My exact sentiments, Mark; only okay on the first viewing, but after reading up about it, and then re-watching through a new set of eyes the film is a masterpiece!

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      • Good to hear Gary. Once you get that awkward first viewing out the way, you’re able to catch more of Refn references and symbolism. I can only hope that it gets better again with further viewings, which I suspect it will.

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  2. Nice review. I have yet to see this one, but it’s great to see a good score. I was a big fan of Drive and have been disappointed by the negative reviews.

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    • Cheers man! I loved Drive. Best film of 2011 for me but don’t expect the same deal at all. That’s the mistake that many people are making. This is its own film entirely and if taken as such, it can be appreciated for what it is.

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  3. Good stuff Mark and welcome back! I’m hoping to catch this next week and I’m really intrigued about it. Looks pretty crazy. Also liking the critical analysis you got going on with the whole castration anxiety thing!

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    • Cheers Chris. Expect something different and you just might take something from it. I’ll completely understand if you don’t, though.
      D’you know, I wasn’t even going to give a critical analysis of what I thought about it but it just that kinda film. You kind of have to delve into it’s symbolism. If you don’t, you probably won’t like it.

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  4. Very good review Mark. You’re right, a lot of people have been disappointed by this picture. I haven’t seen it myself. I wasn’t blown away by Drive and in not sold on Gosling. But it is really good to see a positive opinion of this film.

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    • Much obliged bro. If you weren’t that keen on Drive, there’s a good chance you’ll like this even less. I’ve heard some positive opinions but for the most part, a LOT of folk absolutely hated it. I can understand that entirely. It simple comes down to each individuals preference and analysis.

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  5. As much as I really wanted to LOVE it, I only liked it. It falls short with his earlier work. But I still watched it twice. πŸ™‚

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    • It does falls short, Chris. You’re right. I didn’t LOVE it either but I did really like it. I wasn’t too sure when I first seen but I watched it again too and appreciated it far more the second time. The symbolism was a lot clearer. I think it’s a film that demands a couple of viewings, at least. I had to, before I could even judge it properly.

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      • Yup, I think only Refn knows the message this film was trying to present. Love the brutality though. I think it’ll grow on me after a few more times watching it. Almost a mix of his Pusher days and Drive.

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      • I does hark back to his style before Drive, for sure. Fear X and Valhalla Rising sprung to mind for me. I wasn’t keen on them but I couldn’t get this one out of my head. I still can’t, and that’s a good thing in my eyes.

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      • It lingers doesn’t it. My review comes out on Monday. pretty much the same thoughts as you. Everyone was hoping for another Drive but that would be pretty hard to match IMO.

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      • It definitely does linger. I look forward to your take on it, man. I totally agree that Drive couldn’t, and wisely wasn’t, attempted again.

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      • Well they planned a Drive 2 , Gosling wanted it but I think Refn nixed it.

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      • Yeah, I heard about Drive 2. but I heard that it was Gosling who didn’t want to revisit the role. Either way, it’d be nice if they could work something out.

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  6. I really want to watch this film due to the fact of its reviews. It seems like one of those you either love it or hate it films. Nice review.

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    • Cheers Issy. It definitely is one of those movies. Mostly, I’m hearing a lot of haters on it but it just needs to be seen to find out where you stand on it. Go in prepared.

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  7. Here’s the thing with me – I don’t want a movie to be WORK. Granted I went in expecting another Drive and it totally didn’t deliver that but, after I got over myself, this was too much to work on. After I posted my brief thoughts some folks emailed me or commented about how it needs to be re-watched to get it and how good it was and this and that so I thought about it for a few days and, frankly, this movie can go fuck itself.

    I mean, the big, seminal moment, the “apex” of the film (to me) went like this”

    STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE WALK WALK STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE STARE (whisper) “Wanna fight?” NOD STARE STARE STARE STARE FIGHT

    and then – what the fuck with the mom talking about how magnificent her son’s cock was?? HUH?

    I acknowledge it’s a well made movie, but after Drive and dangling the Drive-2 carrot in front of customers like me, this movie can go eat some shit.

    (I’ll still try out whatever they do next)

    Boat Drinks!

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    • Haha! Nicely summed up, bro. Each to their own, I say. I’d say the same as the others’ advice you got. It does have to be seen again so you can fully explore it.

      As for Crystal talking about her son’s cock, that was only a brief revealing scene of the incest and dysfunction between them. It was all rather Freudian in its Oedipal undertones and there are many more subtle moments that hint at this.

      I do understand your vehement dislike to it, though. A lot of people will probably agree more with you than me on this one, but I did take something from it. It’s no Drive but still a worthy effort.

      Boat Drinks! πŸ™‚

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      • This will be fun to read your comment board all day : )

        I hated all of the staring.

        Oh well –

        Boat Drinks!

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      • It’s a minimalist approach, man. Apparently Refn even considered making it as a silent movie. The thing is, I actually think that Gosling is an actor that can convey a helluva lot with his eyes alone, so it kinda worked me.

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  8. I hope to see this soon. This one sure divides viewers and reviewers. Thanks, Mark.

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  9. I hated Drive, I will hate this, I think I hate Ryan Gosling, and driving and God, and marshmallow Peeps.

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  10. Strong work. This is my next review!

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  11. Well it was pretty to look at that is for sure.

    As someone who has watched all of Refn’s films I found this one to be the slowest paced and that is saying something.

    I am wondering if some of the issues I had with this film are related to the fact that this is the first film he did not shoot in chronological order.

    I forget what blog I was on where I read this about the film “Stylization is not the same as good storytelling” that would pretty much sum up my major gripe about this film. Well that and the fact that Refn passed up an opportunity to really expose and advance his style of filmmaking to a mass audience, and took a pass. Which is his prerogative, but I don’t agree with the decision.

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    • It’s definitely one that’s hard to argue about Adam. For some it simply didn’t work and yet others took plenty from it. I took more on the second viewing and have to say that I was really rather impressed with it. I found that he was less interested in telling a story in the usual narrative form, preferring a more metaphysical and visual approach.

      I’d also heard that Refn did shoot this in chronological order and in some scenes edited it the same day.

      Sorry to hear it didn’t work for you but I do understand your reasons.

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      • Thats interesting that he was able to pull that off as before he started shooting he was in this doc saying it was going to be hard to shoot that way as he was going to have to shut the city down and move around a lot and was not sure he could afford to do so.

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      • Yeah, I’d go more with that info then Adam. Where I got mine from was imdb and, as you know, that’s not always accurate.

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      • I don’t know maybe he found a way to make it work for him. Either way I love his crazy wall full of index cards. πŸ™‚

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      • Yeah, I got some advice from a friend who was a producer on Peter Mullan’s films and she said that’s the best technique to use when structuring your screenplay.

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  12. GaryLee828 Says:

    Mark, great review! *only one little tiny suggestion to improve it: consider breaking that last paragraph down into 2-3 sections; it started to become difficult to read. lol.

    Since you want to read up on more reviews for OGF, here’s a link to the piece I wrote on it; hopefully you will get something out of it – although I am sure you already know most of what’s in my article; but nonetheless: http://garylee828.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/accurately-interpreting-only-god-forgives/#comments

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    • Was it a bit of a tongue twister? Lol.
      I’ll take that onboard, man. Thanks.

      I’ll swing by on that link a little later. I’m definitely interested in hearing what everyone has to say about this one.

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  13. Hi Mark, nice to see you back blogging man!

    Somehow I get the feeling you’d praise this film Mark, but sorry to say (and you know this already) that I won’t be seeing this. I don’t think Refn’s style is for me, and though I like Kristin Scott Thomas, I don’t think I’ll be missing out seeing her performance here.

    Ahah, it’s interesting to see Brian’s response, I’m definitely in his camp about this one and Gosling πŸ˜€

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    • Hey Ruth! Yeah, I probably won’t be blogging too much but I had to get this review out as the film was really playing on my mind.

      I do think you should avoid it. It’s not a film that I think you’d like. Despite my high score, it certainly is a matter of personal taste.

      It won’t appeal to lots of people as you noticed with Brian and a few other responses. But that’s completely understandable. πŸ˜‰

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      • Hi Mark, well I’ll definitely heed your advice to avoid this one πŸ˜€ I actually have a guest review from my pal Ted who also said I should avoid this one, even though he also gives it a decent score πŸ˜€

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      • Yeah, I just read Ted’s review on it Ruth. I’m trying to read as many reviews on this as possible as its so polarising and interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts. I can’t say I fully agree with him but I do like that he’s rated it reasonably fairly. πŸ™‚

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  14. So it’s as slow as Valhalla Rising then? That was a ball busting film, but I rather liked it.

    I definitely want to see it. Just hope it hits a cinema screen near me. I have a feeling it might be a bit too arty though.

    Good review, fella. Certainly got me a bit more pumped for it! πŸ™‚

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    • It is as slow as Valhalla Rising, Monkey. Personally I wasn’t keen on that film. In fact, I thought it was a pile of pretentious dross, much in the same way that people feel about this film. However, I should give Valhalla another shot because Only God Forgives benefits from a second viewing.

      If you were a fan of Valhalla, then there’s damn good chance you’ll go bananas for this. Thanks for dropping in, Monk. πŸ™‚

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  15. Stellar review, Marky! Really looking forward to checking out Only God Forgives, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Drive. I have a feeling I’m going to like it.

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  16. Great review, I’ve been hearing mixed things about this one.

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  17. Chris Walker Says:

    Great review Mark as always. I was very much looking forward to this, the Ryan Gosling/Nicolas Winding Refn combo is a delight to watch. I don’t mind movies you don’t understand at the first go. It actually at times makes it more enjoyable trying to dissect it.

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    • Cheers Chris! This is certainly very different from Drive, but I admire Refn and Gosling’s boldness in delivering something unique. Don’t expect Drive and don’t judge it straight away. It demands at least a few sittings.

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  18. Good review Mark. A very strange movie that didn’t make much sense half of the time, but one that i was always interested in. No matter where it went, my mind always followed.

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    • I wasn’t that impressed first time around Dan but I couldn’t get it out if my head. On a second viewing, though, this really took hold of me. Refn worked at such a level that most audiences, simply, won’t appreciate but I have to say that I think he’s achieved something special here.

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  19. Finally I can read this after I saw this last night. I have watched it twice, but I’ll be honest dude, I’m a little disappointed. Not only wasnt it as violent as everyone would lead me to believe, I just dont think it did anything or went anywhere. Ill explain more in my review I guess, but I just think it eluded to stuff like incest and the loss of hands/cleansing of souls etc but it just didnt feel complete to me. I don’t know, still struggling to process it. I preferred it to Valhalla Rising though πŸ™‚

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    • Well, you know my initial thoughts on this one bro. I didn’t think it achieved the same level as our beloved Drive but I thought some more on it and watched it again and I have to say that I am thoroughly impressed with Refn’s work here.
      It operates on an almost subconscious level with symbolism and metaphors abound. If you look into Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the nature of that tale then you can see that Refn is delving into a whole Freudian journey, masqueraded as a crime flick.

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  20. Christophe McCallum Says:

    Great review Mark. Loved Only God Forgives myself, being a fan of Refn’s work, firstly through Drive like most people, then through Bronson and Valhalla Rising. The cinematography, first of all, was amazing; I found it difficult to get bored as I usually would with a film like this(arthouse films, Eraserhead, Three Colours etc.), as every shot was just really visually interesting to me. Loved the reds and blues featured prominently throughout the film. Story was pretty much superfluous in a film like this, but what you get works as well as it should. The soundtrack by Cliff Martinez was great. The performances were pretty strong, with Vithaya Pansringarm’s God character as a standout, alongside impressive turns from Kirsten Scott Thomas as Crystal and Ryan Gosling as Julian, who still manages to be impressive despite only having 22 lines in the whole film- the man knows how to use his face. The violence is something about the film that I have to say I found somewhat jarring though- it made the film difficult to watch at times, I’d say it’s some of the most disturbing violence I’ve seen in a film, especially that one torture scene with the needles. I can absolutely see why people hate it though, especially those expecting Drive in Bangkok, but for me it was an absolute treat. 5/5

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    • Thanks Christophe! It’s always good to hear more positivity on this one. I think a lot of people were expecting a conventional movie but Refn and Gosling have choose something else entirely and it works. Not as good as Drive but still a very impressive movie.

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  21. It’s polarizing indeed but as you know I’m all with you on this one! You made a very good take on it.

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  22. Done watching it twice. Still didn’t get it. Its visually arresting and thats about it! I do get the undertones that it had but it still fails to impress me.

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    • Fair enough, man. At least you tried. So many have judged it on a single viewing but if it still didn’t work for you after giving it another shot, there’s not much more you ask from someone. It’s just one of those films where it’s either for you or it isn’t. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it again.

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  23. I think there is lots to chew upon in this picture and that is why descriptive words or phrases such as shallow or lacking in depth miss the mark.

    I find the way in which Julian’s mother might exist as the satanic opposite of the god-like Chang very interesting and that Julian is caught between such persons draws me, at least, into some concern for his person. Billy certainly exists as a possible outcome for Julian and yet his (Julian’s) own traces of goodness manifest precisely on those occasions that he disregards the will of his mother…

    http://mymusingsonfilm.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/only-god-forgives/

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    • Yeah, I think there’s a lot of depth to this also. I caught a lot of the symbolism and metaphors that Refn was going for and you could quite easily perceive Julian mother as the evil to Chang’s good. Julian himself, on the hand, looks like he’s in limbo between them.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I’ll be sure to check out your review as well.

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  24. Great review mark and glad we share a mutual respect for the film, as I’m sure you know we fans are few and far between. Like you say, this is most certainly a film that demands repeat viewings and at times, the patience of a monk to fully understand its meaning, themes and symbolism. But then you grant the film the film these few extended efforts the rewards are a much fuller experience, at least for me.

    Cheers Buddy

    Here’s my write up http://www.moviereviewworld.com/movie-review/only-god-forgives-review/

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    • I couldn’t agree more Allan. Admittedly, I was left stumped and disappointed on a first viewing but I knew at the back of mind that I had to give it more time. Any film that goes against the conventions has be given time to sink in and afforded at least another viewing. I do so with this and appreciated it a lot more second time round. It’s been a while now so another sitting wouldn’t go amiss and I suspect I’ll take even more from it.

      I’ll drop by on your review as well. Cheers mate!

      Like

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