I was in HMV, Easter 2012, perusing the latest DVD offers when one caught my attention – Drive.
I had heard good things about it, not least of all in Stephen Fry’s hosting of the BAFTAs earlier on in the year, and the £5 price sticker only made it more appealing. This turned out to be one of the best transactions I ever made, as I sat through one of the more enjoyable 100 minutes of my life. I was so impressed with both the direction and performances that I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s respective filmographies. Although both Valhalla Rising and Bronson were not quite up to the same standard as Drive, there was certainly an appreciation to be had for the artistry in their makeup, and for the boldness from Refn to do things in his films that could raise a lot of eyebrows. Gosling’s previous ventures also provided some stellar entertainment, most notably his performances in Half Nelson, Fracture and Crazy, Stupid, Love.
You can understand my bitter dismay then, when I saw the latest collaboration between the two, Only God Forgives, an edgy crime thriller where Julian (Gosling) hunts down the killer of his brother, spurred on by his cold and unrelenting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Or this is what the trailer led me to believe at least. What I actually ended up watching was an hour and a half of dialogue-lite, over-acted and under-paced disappointment. I SO wanted this film to be good. I yearned for that same feeling of pure satisfaction I got when I watched Drive for the first time (and indeed, every time since). I needed to enjoy another film that didn’t make me feel guilty for taking pleasure in the Hollywood-ised nature of it. But in the end, I felt myself craving just one little car chase or even a mini-explosion, just to liven the film up a bit.
…simply THE worst film that I’ve had the misfortune of having to endure…
From what I can gather, this movie has somewhat split the film community, and can be put next to tattoos, fake boobs and Marmite, as one of the things that you will either love or hate. Personally, I have only been split between whether to describe Only God Forgives as one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, or simply THE worst film that I’ve had the misfortune of having to endure.
The picture opens interestingly enough, Gosling skulking around a busy venue, with punters cheering at the Thai boxing match taking place. This introduces us to Billy (Tom Burke), Julian’s older brother, who completes the opening sequence by attacking several people and eventually raping and killing a young girl… Right. There appears very little motivation behind this outburst and we are merely left to assume that Billy must have done things like this before and is probably just a bit messed up. Poor guy.
…the bizarreness doesn’t end…
We are soon introduced to Chang who, for a character with very little dialogue, is somehow over-acted by Vithaya Pansringarm with ridiculous, steely glares at anyone and everyone who will receive them. He is an un-uniformed policeman sent to investigate Billy’s little discrepancy. Upon arriving at the crime scene, he gives the dead girl’s father the freedom to do what whatever he wants unto Billy and, in classic Refn style, brutally batters his head in. Chang questions the father’s actions and why he let his daughter become a prostitute in the first place. Obviously his answer of, “because I have no sons” wasn’t good enough, as he promptly cuts off the father’s arm as a reminder of his sins. This scene gives an indication that Chang is the ‘God’ in the film’s title, or certainly a representation of him at least.
If you think the brutality and peculiar nature of the early sequences is just a narrative tool, used to shock the audience into paying attention from the get-go, you’d be mistaken, as the bizarreness doesn’t end there.
…utterly dreadful and painstaking to watch…
Throughout the story we are treated to several hallucinations/visions from Julian, each as unusual as the last, and no doubt a clumsy device to try and ram down our throats the fact that Gosling’s character may have one or two issues. On more than occasion, Julian is in the middle of an erotic situation with his ‘girlfriend’ Mai, only to suddenly have a vision of Chang either staring at him like a lost old man, or trying to cut off his arms. But hey, whatever floats your boat. It was this sort of thing that Refn could have quite easily included in Drive, in order to more blatantly show the audience that The Driver was a troubled individual, but he chose not to. This was of great benefit to both the character and the film as a whole, so I can’t for the life of me work out why the decision was made differently this time around.
At around the half hour mark, we are treated to a karaoke performance from Chang at the local police hangout. It’s utterly dreadful and painstaking to watch, failing to warrant its inclusion in the film. Moving on.
…subjected to incestuous acts by his mother…
The arrival of Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), to the story, provides the welcome introduction of a dialogue-rich character, but again, she is over-acted and I found myself unconvinced by the verisimilitude of her character. This may well be down to KST’s lack of confidence in her ability to play the role, as she herself has admitted to being completely out of her comfort zone in this picture. Upon receiving a copy of the script from Refn before she had signed on, KST sent it back to him, asking if he realised that she was the one who played Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
During her first scene, Crystal needlessly lambasts a hotel receptionist, and then the manager, in a sequence that was obviously included in the film to demonstrate the essence of the woman as soon as possible, but it’s crowbarred in in such ungainly fashion, that it makes you wonder whether Refn has decided to remove the word ‘subtlety’ from his vocabulary altogether. Crystal’s first scene with Julian is at least an intriguing one though, as it is quite heavily hinted that at some point in Julian’s upbringing, he was subjected to incestuous acts by his mother. A hug of the groin and seductive arm stroke from mother to son, coupled with an insensitive berating of Julian’s penis size later on, we can fairly safely say that Crystal brings a new meaning to the term, ‘motherly love’.
…I ended up losing almost all interest…
In the same scene, she wastes no time in chastising Julian for not avenging her eldest son’s death, glossing over the fact that he raped and killed a young woman, emphasising even more that we shouldn’t expect her to be receiving any nominations for mother of the year.
By now then, we have come to the firm realisation that this is not Drive 2: Bangkok Bites Back, and that instead we are being subjected to over-artsy surrealism. So when we see a juicy torture scene approaching, our eyes naturally light up with enthusiasm. Finally, the sequence that will breathe some life into the movie. Alas, it was not to be. Admittedly, Chang does treat us to some pretty gruesome stuff that leaves very little to the imagination, but it’s so ridiculously drawn out that I ended up losing almost all interest. Chang wanders around the room (which is very large) several times during the scene, which slows the whole thing down and makes it lose a lot of its potency. I’m sure the intention was to build tension and have the audience willing Chang not to do any more, but I found myself imploring him to just get it over with already. I must confess that, after this, I lost all faith and watched the film through scornful eyes, rather than optimistic ones.
…I couldn’t understand the point of this sequence in the film…
And to top things off, we are treated to another karaoke performance from Chang at the local police hangout. It’s utterly dreadful and painstaking to watch, failing to warrant its inclusion in the film. Moving on.
Even the “oh yeah!” moment of the trailer – Julian challenging Chang to a duel with the now obviously cringe-worthy line of, “Wanna fight?” – couldn’t lead us down a more satisfied road. Julian lands not one single blow unto his opponent, who wastes no time in, well, beating the crap out of him. I couldn’t understand the point of this sequence in the film, yet I’m sure it’s original purpose was to be one of the crowning scenes. What I will say for it though, is that it was another demonstration of very interesting cinematography from Larry Smith, with a lot of the conflict shot from a bird’s-eye view. But it was much like how I’d imagine watching a slug ascend a wall in 3D to be.
…the cinematography is very good…
The climax of the film doesn’t make us regret spending £10 on the ticket any less, including some downright stupidity on Julian’s part; a desperate attempt to try and make our ‘hero’ more rounded and morally sound (the words ‘ship’ and ‘sailed’ come to mind); a weird sacrifice and possibly, no, definitely THE most awkward, bizarre and downright odd scene I’ve ever witnessed in cinema. Let’s just say it involves Julian, a dead body and some feeling around.
It may sound as if I’ve just picked the worst parts of the film and hung them out to dry, without appreciating some of the finer artistic points. As I mentioned, the cinematography is very good, and the lighting of some of the sets was simply beautiful, and the very strong soundtrack provided by Cliff Martinez (also returning from a stellar job on Drive) deserves a special mention. It’s just a shame that the quality and content of rest of the film will most likely mean that these aspects are overlooked at the awards ceremonies.
As the final credits role, we are treated to one last rendition of that bloody song from Chang. It’s utterly dreadful and painstaking to watch, failing to warrant its inclusion in the film… One thing you can say for Only God Forgives, is that at least it’s consistent.