Just been watching…(74)

Only God Forgives (2013)

***No real spoilers***

I am late to this film, one I wanted to see for some time. Written and directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, a film-maker whose films I have often enjoyed, and starring Ryan Gosling, a wooden actor whose performances I rarely like. It also co-stars Kristen Scott-Thomas, an actress I really do admire, along with a crop of capable Thai actors I did not recognise at all.

Ostensibly, it is a crime thriller, set and filmed in Bangkok, Thailand. Gosling plays Julian, who along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) runs a drug-dealing operation from the front of a boxing club. But Billy has a dark side, and one night he rapes and kills a teenage prostitute. When the police discover him still in her room, the police chief allows the girl’s father to take revenge, and kill him.

This event prompts the men’s mother, Crystal, (Scott-Thomas) to fly out from America. Not only does she intend to recover the body of Billy, but she wants harsh revenge on all those involved in his killing. She is a hard woman, and boss of the organisation that employs her sons. When Julian refuses to do her bidding, she sets about paying others to do her dirty work, which in turn exacts yet more revenge from the police chief.

In case you hadn’t already noticed, this film is just about revenge. There is no real story other than that. Little or no background, scant character development, and a disappointing array of stereotypes on display. The Thai actors are either paid killers, corrupt cops, or martial arts experts. Their female colleagues supply eye candy, or are shown as prostitutes. The skewed western view of Thailand as a country is on display, for all too see. Then there is the lighting. Red lights, blue lights, green lights, golden lights, neon lights, spotlights, and even fairy lights. With 99.9% of the scenes filmed inside, or at night, the only light not visible was daylight.

To flesh out the story, (if you will forgive the pun) we get mutilation by samurai sword, an unnecessarily protracted torture sequence involving meat skewers, and plenty of blood. Then there are the dream-like visions, with characters seeing into their own future, or pictured staring moodily at walls or lights. We are left in no doubt that the darkness on screen is reflected in their souls. Because it is Thailand, we also get a pointless martial arts fight, and passing shots of neon-lit bars, karaoke clubs and the seedy side of the city. Thankfully, we are spared any gratuitous sex scenes, save for some voyeurism that is supposed to mean something that was lost on me.

Looking for the very few positives, I should mention that the versatile Scott-Thomas plays completely against type here. Her character is a brash American, with long blonde hair, and a foul mouth. She loses herself in that so well, that at times I had to remind myself who she was. The talented Tom Burke is on screen for such a short time, I was sure that he would feature in flashback. But no, we are denied that. And Mr Gosling of course, let’s not forget Ryan. As always, he plays himself well. Lean and mean, long stares, grim silences, and lots of standing still. He is in most scenes, but his appearance in them could be in any film he has ever starred in. Just fill in the name of another of his films, and that’s what you get. Sorry, Ryan. I want to like you, I really do.

I was left wondering about the man who wrote and directed this film. The man who conceived the torture, violence, and sexual deviation in his head. The man who showed us what is surely a window into his own fantasies. Nicholas, I expected better from you, I really did.

47 thoughts on “Just been watching…(74)

      1. I have and I was a big fan of Driver. I admired the look of the film and enjoyed the trailer immensely so was pumped. I think it’s a film that plays against expectations in some ways which is good but it’s also bleak and I think you have a point in the end that for all the p.o. faced seriousness and violence it’s kind of shallow. I dug some things but was ultimately underwhelmed. I did enjoy the Thai cop being the star though and also I found that scene where Gosling makes his choice in the house of the family nicely staged and kind of haunting. Driver was one of the best films of the year for me, this would not have the list.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I know what you mean about the scene-staging. It was like watching a play in a theatre at times. But Julian was always going to shoot the other hit-man, rather than let him kill the child, so it was a little pointless. It might have been more effective if they had killed the kid, and gone against the viewers’ expectations.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I looked back for my own review of this and it seems we were more or less on the same page:

    “When Ryan Gosling and director, Nicolas Winding Refn, paired up again after the uber-successful Drive, I think people were expecting magic. I certainly was. What we got instead was a big old pile of what the actual fuck. Only God Forgives is a relatively simple revenge story that sees Thai boxing club owner/drug dealer, Julian (Gosling) take on the people behind his brother, Billy’s (Tom Burke) death while under the thumb of his psychotic mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas). With some impressive visuals and powerful lighting work under way it seems that Refn wants to tell his story more through aesthetics than narrative… which is something that can work; Baz Luhrman has made an entire career out of it but in this case style over substance doesn’t win and I got really bored, really fast. It doesn’t help that Julian is a completely unlikeable character or that there are so many scenes of prostitutes wanking themselves off. Thomas is brilliantly disturbing as Crystal but it’s not enough to save Only God Forgives from disappearing up its own arsehole. Maybe I missed something epic but I don’t feel like my life would have been any the worse if I had have just skipped this one.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice work, Abbi. You told it like it is, and we definitely came to the same the same conclusions.
      As for Luhrman, other than for the excellent Strictly Ballroom, I rate him along with this film. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Great post, but I am surprised people expected something better from him. This is because his films are consistently either a hit or a miss – never consistently good, well, in my opinion anyway. I thought it was also a bit strange that people expected great things from Refn after “Drive”. He did not write that stellar of a film, but only directed – and this is some major difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post 🙂 I have to respectfully disagree with you on this film though I can’t really hold it against you on this because this is pretty much a love it or hate it film. I see it as a subtly thought-provoking Neo Noir crime thriller that explores surface elements relating to the darker side of human nature. I need to write a more in-depth review in the future because I am kind of tired right now. Either way though, I see your points. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I anticipated your opinion, John. I know you listed this film high on the director’s work. As I said on your post, I had it recorded, and was excited to see it. But I was sorely disappointed, and I hate to be so disappointed in a film. Gosling was just plain awful, and the allegory was a by-the-numbers construction of something dark inside Refn’s mind. But I know that film appreciation is subjective, so if you enjoyed it, that’s fine with me.
      I actually thought ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ was a great film, even though I could only watch it once. So I know the feeling of liking a film that many do not.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I also love Scott-Thomas. I really do!

    I have seen this movie in a couple of disjointed viewings but never 100% properly. Seems like I haven’t missed much.This director is very artsy but sometimes to a point where the meaning cannot actually be distinguished. His movies are usually very nice to look at, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was a really strange movie. There were some scenes that still worked, but for the most part it was a very strange film. While I still liked Gossling’s role in it. But then again, pretty much any role he plays is totally awesome. Definitely not a film I would recommend either Pete. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete, I haven’t seen this, but I know the Director’s work, and after seeing Gosling mumble and stare blankly through their previous collaboration “Drive”, I just couldn’t summon up the interest to go through it again…moody somber acting can get very boring very quickly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do want to like Gosling, John. I would love to see him in something historical, or theatrical. Something that didn’t just require him to move slowly, looking surly and misunderstood. Refn has made some very good films. ‘Valhalla Rising’, ‘The Pusher Trilogy’, and ‘Bronson’, But I am convinced he let his own fantasies run wild in this one.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I didn’t like this one either, Pete. It was an overly deliberate bloodbath with nothing else to say. Unlike you, I’m a huge Ryan Gosling fan and Drive is one of my all time favorite movies. I usually like Kristin Scott-Thomas, but I thought she was deplorable in this film and Gosling looked like he was sleepwalking through it. I liked the color scheme, I thought it was effective in piling on the decadent nature of the film but, literally, that was the only thing about it that appealed to me even remotely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt ‘hammered’ by the colours. After fifteen minutes, I actually said out loud, “OK, I get it. Allegorical colours. Move on!” (I was alone in the room. 🙂 )
      As for Kristen, I think her character was hard to like, but I enjoyed the transformation from her usual fairly demure parts. And Like I said, I really want to like Ryan. Maybe one day I will.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Good lord, sounds awful and what was Ms Scott Thomas thinking? She’s better than that. Also I spent a wonderful 2 weeks travelling in Thailand and didn’t see a single mutilation/samurai sword fight/martial art thing, and had lovely food with very kind Thai people. Great place and people!

    Liked by 2 people

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