FlixChatter [Guest] Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

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Nicolas Winding Refn made a name for himself after directing 2011′s Drive, many thought that film should’ve been nominated for best picture at the Oscars. I really enjoyed it but I thought it’s more style-over-substance type of movie, so when Only God Forgives was announced as his next movie, I hoped it would actually be less style and more good storytelling. Unfortunately that was not the case, in fact OGF might be a prime example of a film that’s all style and not much substance.

The film begins with a scene at a Thai boxing arena, we’re first introduced to Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke). We then were shown that the boxing arena is actually a front for drug dealings runs by both Julian and Billy. Later Billy decided to go out and have some fun. He went to a local whore house and asked the pimp if he has any 14 year girls that he can have sex with. The pimp told him no and Billy went crazy and beat up him up. A few minutes later, Billy was able to find a young hooker on the street. The next scene we see cops are surrounding a hotel where Billy took the young hooker.

Here’s where we were introduced to Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), he’s some sort of a police chief and pretty much the judge, jury and executioner. As it turned out, Billy raped and murdered the young hooker. Chang surveyed the scene and then brought in the hooker’s father, he let the father go into the room and beats Billy to death. Then Chang lectured the father about letting his daughter have sex for money, the father begged for his forgiveness but Chang decided to punish him by chopping one of his arms off. Later on, Billy’s and Julian’s mom Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrived from the States. She wants revenge for her son’s death and orders a hit on everyone who was responsible for his death.

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There’s isn’t much story in this film, it’s basically a revenge flick that involves people killing one another. Refn seems to be more interested in showing moving images than actually telling a story. Here he mimic other filmmakers such as Kubrick, Lynch, Malick and his idol Alejandro Jodorowsky. In fact, he dedicated this film to Jodorowsky and the film kind of reminds me of Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky’s weird thriller that involves a mother and son. Many shots in the movie reminded me of Kubrick’s The Shining and Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Then there’s the visual and music which reminds me of Malick’s films. I think this was one of the few films I saw where the cameras hardly moved, Refn seems to be using many steady cam shots and have his actors do most of the moving around.

Performance-wise, I think the actors did as well as they could considering that the script had no plot whatsoever. Gosling hardly spoke throughout the film, all he did was either stare at the actors across from him or walking around looking somber. I’m not sure what Refn wanted out of that role. I’m curious as to how the character would’ve turned had Luke Evans starred in it, he had to back out because of scheduling conflicts with The Hobbit. Pansringarm’s Chang is some kind of god or higher power being, he walks around with dark clothes and no one can seem to hurt or kill him, my assumption is that the film’s title refers to him. I think the best performance belongs to Kristin Scott Thomas, she reminded me of Gary Oldman’s performance in Leon: The Professional. It’s way over the top performance but you somehow believe that kind of person do exist in real life.

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There’s been a lot of talk about the film’s violent content and yes it’s quite brutal. But not as bad some of the more extreme films such as Irreversible, Hostel or any of those torture porn flicks. Refn actually cut away some of the more violent scenes or he just didn’t show it. I’m actually glad he did that because I don’t think I can handle some of the more brutal scenes, like the rape of the young hooker, I hate rape scenes, I find them more disturbing and disgusting than seeing someone getting their head blown off. Now he did show some quite violent sequences, especially the scene where Chang tortured a guy who put out a hit on him, that was hard to watch.

Despite my not-so-enthusiastic review, I actually enjoyed this film. It has some great visual shots, Refn and his camera guy really did a good job of capturing the gritty look of Bangkok. There are some cool action sequences too, I really like the way Refn set up the scene where Chang and his men were ambushed by a bunch of thugs. But the highlight sequence for me was the much-advertised fight scene between Julian and Chang. Those expecting a big fight like other martial arts films will probably be disappointed, the fight actually ended pretty quickly. Since Chang is an experienced kick-boxer, he was able to kick the crap out of Julian easily. Thai actress/pop star Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, who’s apparently a big star in her native country, plays a call girl whom Julian is a frequent customer, but her role is not really significant in the film.

With a better script that focuses more on storytelling and characters development, this could’ve been a great crime thriller. I wanted to know more about Julian’s relationship with his mother, it sort of implied that she had sex with both of her sons, which is why both of them are so messed up. Then there’s Chang. Even though he’s written as this sort of higher being, I wanted to know more about him. If this was written by Quentin Tarantino, I think it would’ve been a great gangster flick. Even though I have a lot of complaints about this film, I really liked it and probably will see it again soon. Fans of Drive might be disappointed though but if you’re a fan of Kubrick, Malick or Lynch, you might like this film.


3 out of 5 reels


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Thoughts on this film? Agree/disagree w/ this review? Well, let’s hear it!

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31 thoughts on “FlixChatter [Guest] Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

  1. Of course it’s weird and strange, but that’s the point. I expected that from Refn, and it kept me surprisingly interested by what he was going to bring out next. Good review Ted.

    • Thanks Dan.

      I pretty much expected the film won’t be “mainstream” since Refn is not the type who likes to make that kind of films. It definitely kept my attention.

  2. Good review. This is a love it or hate it film, though I won’t say I love it but I really liked it. I agree that this reminds you of Kubrick’s The Shining. Its funny because the whole time I kept thinking that especially the scenes in the hallways.

    • Thanks Issy, yeah Refn must’ve watched Kubrick’s The Shining or Barry Landon many times before he made this film, so many shots reminded me of those two films.

  3. So far Drive is the only film Refn’s done that i really liked. I do believe Refn as trying to say something with this film, particularly in regards to masculinity, but the storytelling just wasn’t developed enough to really make those ideas come through. And while the directing was great, i feel at times it felt…too much?Im not sure how to explain it, but it felt like he was compensating for a weak script. I think it just felt too stylized at times,like he was showing off or something.

    Also, i found myself far ore fascinated by Chang than Julian(or anyone else in the film for that matter). I feel like he was better developed. I felt like we never really got below the surface with Julians character, which prevented me from really connecting with his journey(Even though we share a first name :P)

    • Yeah I’m sure Refn tried to say something by making this film but I can’t figure out what that is, maybe when I see it again, I’ll understand it better. But probably not, I still enjoyed it.

  4. I am a big fan of Kristin Scott Thomas and wanted to see this because she was in it. Ryan Gosling is usually fantastic in his recent films; I hoped it had some substance and I’m not a huge fan of gratutituous violence, so I’ve been on the fence.

    • Cindy, it’s quite violent but if you can get past a few sequences, it might be okay for you to watch it. Kristin was great in it but she didn’t have a lot of screen time.

      • Well, I’m a history teacher. So I’m used to violence. I don’t mind, for the most part. I really prefer dialogue and plot action. Decapitate a limb or pull out an organ–I don’t mind. Just make the characters realistic, is all I ask! :)

  5. You just blew me away by comparing some of the shots to The Shining. When I was watching the film I felt the exact same way, when I did my review I completely forgot to mention it. This film was Kubrick all the way.

    It’s a tough film to critique, as much as I liked it, I was also a little disappointed hoping for another Drive masterpiece.

    I’ve watched it twice and I will watch it a few more times. It gets better each time.

    Fantastic review Ted.

  6. Good write up Ted. In watching the trailer I can totally see the Kubrick-esque sterility in the set pieces. But my bias was formed in also watching the trail when several audience members busted out laughing at what they saw on screen.

    • Thanks! Hopefully you’ll enjoy it when you finally see the actual film, I didn’t see the trailer with other people but I can understand why they laughed.

  7. I appreciate your thoughts on this one Ted but I have to disagree that it’s all style and no substance. I think Refn has bravely chosen to tell his story in a less formulaic narrative form. Much like David Lynch, he has chosen to use symbolism and metaphors in conveying his own take on Sophocles’ Oepdius Rex. As much as I’m a massive fan of Drive, and I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did that film, I do believe that this has even more substance than that. I’ve seen it twice now and the first time, I was admittedly unimpressed but on a second viewing, all the themes, symbolism and metaphors started to rise to the surface. In fact, the more I think on it, the more I’m starting to believe that Refn has crafted a work of genius here.
    It’s certainly devicive and polarising, though and I do completely understand some audiences nog taking to it. Good work all the same Ted.

    • Hey Mark, you know I might change my mind when I see it again, as of now I just think Refn just wanted to show off how great he can shoot a movie. I think I might may have enjoyed this film a bit more than Drive for the first time, wasn’t that impressed with Drive the first time around.

      Thanks for your comment as always!

  8. You know I’ve been a fan of Refn since the low budget Pusher. I did know he was such a fan of Jodorowsky. I was never a big fan of Santa Sangre. I much preferred The Holy Mountain and El Topo. Being that Dali is my favorite artist finding Jodorowsky was a revelation. A latter day Luis Buñuel. Being a big fan of the visual styles of Kubrick, Malick and Lynch I might like this more than most. Films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Beyond The Black Rainbow appeal to me despite their obtuseness. (I can honestly say I’ve never used that word before. LOL.)

    Let you know what I think when I see it Ted.

    Check out Refn’s Pusher (The original, not the remake) if you can find it. It’s low budget, dirty and gritty but I really liked it. It stars Kim Bodina and Mads Mikkelsen from way back in ’96. Bodina now stars in the acclaimed Swedish TV series “Bron/Broen” (The Bridge). Which, of course, they’re also remaking that for FX this fall and Mikkelsen stars in the recently acclaimed The Hunt and TV’s Hannibal series..

    The trailer includes the other films in the trilogy. The first was the best IMHO.

    • I’ve never seen Pusher, might give it a try, thanks for reminding me Dave. Mikkelsen is pretty great as Hannibal and I know Ruth really likes him in The Hunt, I haven’t seen it yet.

      Yeah, apparently both Refn and Jodorowsky are teaming up to do a film together soon, forgot what that film is about though. I’ve never seen The Holy Mountain but El Topo was pretty good despite it being so weird.

      I still need to see Upstream Color. I’ve never heard of Beyond The Black Rainbow so thanks for the trailer, I’m intrigued.

  9. Like so many movies this year, this one has been divisive as well. I still haven’t seen it. I wasn’t blown away like many people when it comes to Drive and Gosling is still a suspect actor in my book. So I didn’t feel the need to rush to see this one. But all the conversation and varied opinion has me feeling anxious to check it out. Really good review here.

    • Let me know what you think when you see it Keith and yeah I’m not the biggest fan of Gosling either. And I wasn’t as a big of a fan of Drive the first time around but after seeing a couple of times, I appreciate what Refn was trying to do, played homage to those late 70s and 80s action thriller, well that’s what I got out of the film anyway. Some may have seen it differently.

  10. Great review here Ted. I am glad that you specified that the rape scene is not shown. I can’t stand those scenes either and wasn’t sure I would then see this upon first mention of that scene. I may give this one a shot but I tend to get bored or frustrated when there is a lack of a plot or interesting story.

    not a big fan of Malick at all, but now I know what to expect when I see this. Thanks, man.

    • Thanks T., yeah I despise rape scenes, I know it happens in real life so I don’t need to see it in movies. I had to fast forward the rape scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo every time I watch that movie, it’s just too much for me.

      Yeah, if you’re not a fan of Malick, it might be a tough one for you to sit through.

    • Hey Vince, thanks for stopping by. Yeah I wish Refn put some more effort into the plot instead of just showing cool images.

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  12. I think making what is essentially a torture porn fantasy adventure dressed up in a fancy neon dinner jacket with a-list window dressing shows a complete lack of imagination and restraint on Refn’s part. So he likes to moody messed uo cinema for its own sake… who cares? Nice review Ted.

    • Hey thanks, yeah Refn can shoot cool looking images but he needs to focus on writing a better script that actually tells a good story.

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