“No, just no.”
– My good friend Andy
When I started this blog, reviewing films was not part of the plan. I decided to make an early exception however, having just seen Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling. Winding Refn’s previous picture, Drive, also starring Gosling, was certainly divisive, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the controversy currently surrounding OGF. The film has divided opinion amongst critics and punters alike to such an extent, that it’s almost impossible not to contribute to the debate.
Concerning the film itself; there’s very little to discuss as there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it. Some people will pretend there is, but there isn’t. The plot’s thin, the characters are one dimensional and the dialogue, for the most part, is rather awkward. Gosling’s undeniably cool, and could outstare the Statue of Liberty, but his character, Julian, a drug runner in Thailand whose front is a local Muay Thai institution, inspires little emotion. This is unfortunate, as his arc (if you can call it that) is one of only two vaguely interesting aspects of the film story/character-wise, in the sense that it isn’t as predictable as the promotional material implies. You expect straight up, efficient vengeance. Instead, Julian is pretty much continuously on the back foot, suffering from both his own choices and from generally being a bit of a little bitch throughout. In short, he is not the hero you expect, which on paper always has the potential to make a story all the more interesting. In this case however, it contributes nothing to the film as you just do not care about the character.
His stoic, blade-wielding nemesis, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), fails to help proceedings. You would think a self-styled ‘Angel of Vengeance’ (the titular ‘God’, who alone holds the power to forgive) would provide a boost in the interest stakes. No. The man fights well, he sings well, he stabs well. Once again however, you find it hard to care. Kristin Scott Thomas’ mental mafia mum is the other story/character-related aspect with the potential to intrigue, although such curiosity soon wears thin. She does at least provide some of the more memorable images; dominating the frame whenever she is on screen.
Visually the film comes across as the love child of Gaspar Noé’s infamous Enter the Void and Guy Ritchie’s rather average Revolver. While that may sound like it will hurt your face, some aspects work well. The dingy, neon bathed glow of Bangkok’s seedy side streets and back alleys makes for an eye-catching backdrop to the city’s ongoing underground activity, as does the use of shadow, which is prevalent throughout. Along with the amount of slowly creeping corridor shots however, the overall visuals gradually become tedious. It doesn’t bode well when what it supposed to be a dark, moody ocular feast leaves you begging for more daylight scenes.
The only consistent plus is the soundtrack. While the visuals, characters and plot provide you with very little substance, the heavy synths and deep bass, accompanied by the occasional string-based Far Eastern twang, combine to dictate the tone of the film. It’s a fantastic score from Cliff Martinez (another member of the Drive team), but ultimately the film as a whole asks far too much of it. When the soundtrack is propping up the rest of the picture, it’s nothing more than a waste.
In the end the lack of overall depth means that OGF is one of those films that you just sort of float through, rather than ever truly engaging with it. It has some cool moments (“Wanna fight?”), some nice touches (the Thai opening credits/title) and some beautiful cinematography (Chang’s sunset swordplay), but overall it’s a whole lot of nothing. The most fascinating aspect of the whole affair is the manner in which the film was made and promoted. Winding Refn was evidently given complete artistic licence following the phenomenal (and deserved) success of Drive, and just made the film he wanted to make. This is fair enough. The promotion is the real middle finger. The trailers, particularly the spot playing round the clock in front of almost every video on YouTube, are magnificently misleading. It’s actually almost admirable.
Following OGF’s release in the UK, the polarising reviews given out by critics and the general controversy it’s caused have provided the real entertainment. In turn, this has spread to cinemagoers. I personally don’t mind the film, primarily due to the balls it took to make and release it, but at the same time I don’t believe a standard rating would be helpful. If you want to go see what all the fuss is about, by all means do so. You could end up in the five star camp, or the no star camp. Luckily for me, my good friend Andy was firmly in the latter. His tirade in the car park afterwards made it all completely worthwhile. He knows his stuff when it comes to cinema and has had plenty of controversial views over the years, but to see him literally seething was a rare thing of beauty. Labelling it a “pretentious stylistic nonsense”, he claimed that the only inferior film he could think of was Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers, which is not a film you want to be mentioned in the same breath as your own. Seriously, don’t watch it. Ever.
OGF is one of those films that should be remembered for little more than the fact that the trailer was better than the picture itself, which worryingly seems to be happening more and more these days. In reality, Winding Refn’s successful attempt at winding up pretty much everyone by releasing and promoting a full on art house film as a commercial flick (Drive was the same, but it didn’t matter as it was both coherent and brilliant) will probably be heavily debated for years to come. Eventually it will graduate to being vigorously studied in future History of Film degree courses. Whilst this is tragic, the hours of wasted argument it will incite amongst students fifty years from now will be delicious.
All in all, although I think there’s little point to it, I’m glad it exists.