Before I start discussing Only God Forgives, let me just say I loved Drive, the film that universally showed us that Ryan Gosling is a star whether he talks or not.
Until today. Mr. Gosling, you can’t ride this train forever. You can start talking in your movies again. We made a grave mistake.
Only God Forgives. the latest film by Nicolas Winding Refn, might definitely mean something. I just have no idea what it is. The amount of violence and general human depravity in the film has been thrown around as a reason why people dislike it, but it really has no bearing on my opinion- to me, it was no more graphic than any other R-rated action film. Then again, rarely do those films have so much riding on them.
I thought this movie would establish Refn as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a Tarantino that pours less into the screenplay and more into the visual insights, the balance of light and art and film all into one (not that Tarantino neglects these things, but he’s mostly concerned with his ability to say the N-word, permission that was apparently granted in a secret ceremony that only Samuel L. Jackson was invited to attend). To be fair, Refn’s flair for production design and striking visual images is what keeps the movie afloat.
But I really, really didn’t like it.
The lack of a succinct screenplay really upset me, more than I thought I would. As you will come to learn through my writing, I herald the screenplay above all else with a feature film, but there are ways around that. If you have phenomenal actors and a thrilling director, you can make a brilliant movie. Hell, Pacific Rim only had one of those (and yes, I would say Pacific Rim is brilliant, in a robots fighting monsters kind of way). But drive was definitely lacking (heh) in Only God Forgives. I felt like I was watching the Kodak slide show of the vacation from hell. Let this be a lesson to all young directors- you probably think a movie can come together through only your unique vision. This is probably not the case, and, if it is, you’re only allowed to prove it after you have three pictures cross the $100 million mark and you win an Oscar.
The problem is a lack of respect for his audience. Refn is aware that his audience is, largely, American men under the age of 50. This is the age group that has idealized Gosling’s character of “The Driver”, and what he stands for. His calming silence, ability to get shit done, and his desire to do what is morally right in his mind made him the new “Man With No Name”. Refn took that character we came to respect, and made him awful. I have no problem with taking a character to new depths- indeed, Gosling is not even technically playing that role again. But the intricacies of the way both roles are acted indicate that they come from the same place. Refn is too smart to think that audiences won’t see similarities, and the result is what truly darkens the film. Julian, played by Gosling, isn’t so much deliberate in his silence as he is……silent. There’s a difference between silence and acting, Ryan, I’m sorry Mr. Refn misled you.
And the ending. Fuck that ending. I won’t give it away, but let me say this: I used to joke that a show like Breaking Bad, a really taut drama with numerous twists and turns, should end the final episode with nothing happening. Like, Walter White goes into a restaurant, eats a meal, and leaves. Done. After seeing Only God Forgives, I would never wish that ending on my worst enemy.
All in all, maybe I’m overplaying my disappointment. I somewhat enjoyed the picture (although it was a fairly boring film, despite the fact it was designed to “elicit reactions”). The other actors were fair, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm being the biggest stand outs in two vastly different performances. At the end of the day, though, I will probably see the next Refn picture, oddly enough. I’d rather see a director divide an audience than please one all the time. I’ll accept this as an artistic exercise, and see him on his next go-around. Here’s hoping it means more.