No other film has proved to be as divisive among critics this year as Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, his follow up to 2011’s excellent Drive. Whereas his earlier effort was widely praised at the Cannes Film Festival, God was roundly panned there and an equal amount of derision greeted it when it debuted in the States earlier this year. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said it “bordered on the unwatchable,” Leonard Maltin called it “irritating and pretentious,” Rex Reed advised that “you bring your own barfbag," while Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune stated “this is the worst, least, dumbest picture made by people of talent this year.” (Richard Roeper thinks it’s “one of the best movies of the year,” so take that for what it’s worth.)
More than anything God is a deeply personal film that Refn has obviously made for himself and the sense while watching is that he doesn’t really care whether you understand it or not. Characters commit heinous acts with seemingly little motivation, while overt symbolism is obvious throughout but there's little in the way of context provided through which to interpret it by. And while the film’s last image, which is hauntingly beautiful, does provide a few key clues to unlocking the story’s mysteries, by that time you’re past caring what it’s all about having been put through the ringer what with the director’s gratuitously violent aesthetic.
The plot is really quite simple. Gosling is Julian, a drug smuggler in Bangkok who goes through life seemingly in a stupor, showing little emotion no matter what trial befalls him. His partner in the operation, his brother Billy (Tom Burke), is murdered after raping and killing a 16 year-old prostitute and despite the fact that his end seems justified, the boys' mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) appears on the scene and demands that Julian exact revenge on her son’s killer.
The man who Julian ends up pursuing is a retired police chief named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who wields a sword with deadly accuracy and has the ability to show up in the right place, at the right time, right out of the blue. If you were to simply watch the film you’d be left scratching your head as the purpose of this character but in the production notes, Refn states that Chang is a “a figurehead of divine justice.” Thus, he is the deity of the film’s title and needless to say, he’s not in a very forgiving mood.
While Refn should be commended for unerringly sticking to his artistic vision, he cannot be forgiven for the tepid pace he adopts in telling this tale. The film runs a scant 90 minutes yet it seems like a long walk through deep water. Many scenes run far too long and with so many key moments rendered in an ambiguous manner and little context, it’s difficult to become engaged in the story. Gosling isn’t much help either, as his character is a cypher throughout and the actor maintains a single stern expression in nearly every scene. That he was following Refn’s direction is a given but the actor said that he was a close contributor on the film, even suggesting his character comment one of the more gruesome acts on screen. The one highlight of the film is Scott Thomas who hams it up at every turn, attempting to match Refn’s outlandish approach with her own operatic turn. Her character is truly deplorable (If Chang is God, then Crystal must be…) but the actress is a delight as she revels in the evil role she’s been handed.
Like many of David Lynch’s films, God requires that you sit through it more than once to uncover its true meaning. However, while films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. peak the viewer’s curiosity and invite further scrutiny, the gratuitous violence Refn employs repels the viewer, as if he's daring you to endure the movie rather than experience it. Obviously, the message here is that justice should be delivered swiftly and without mercy but a different tact could have been taken that would encourage the viewer to appreciate these actions as necessary to the narrative, rather than moments that alienate them.
In the end each viewer will walk away with their own interpretation and opinion of Refn’s work. To be sure, it is a memorable film but not necessarily for the reasons you might hope as God proves to be a Rorschash test of sorts with every person’s reaction being a mirror of their own moral code.
Only God Forgives will be shown at the Art Theater, Friday and Saturday evening at midnight.