I wanted to love this film; I really, really did. After the visual and atmospheric masterpieces that are Valhalla Rising and Drive, I was prepared to discover what could possibly be the next outstanding work of art from Nicolas Winding Refn. Sure this film had gotten some extremely polarizing reactions – especially shown by the simultaneous standing ovation and outflux of boos at the Cannes Festival this past spring – but then again, what Refn film hasn’t? Complaints of “style over substance” seem to follow the filmmaker around, and with his Bronson, I could truly see where such problematic issues would lie. However, with reference to the two previously-mentioned films I had seen and loved, I decided to take the chance and see what I’d truly think about his latest.
My goodness, this film is dull. The narrative moves at quite an unusually languid pace. I usually have little issue with this in movies, but it doesn’t exactly work to its benefit here. I was intrigued by its story – saturated with angles of vengeance and pure hostility – and my instinctual interest in what roads the tale would choose to take kept me from just plain switching the film off altogether. However, its choice of keeping an extreme distance with its emotional portrayal was just plain frustrating. I did not have a problem with its extreme violence, which seems to lie as the bulk of complaints surrounding this film; what I did dislike, however, was the implication of these violent acts (or lack thereof). Violence seems to work here as a method of catharsis among the individuals involved in the narrative, but none of the action seems the least bit plausible. I’m used to suspending a bit of disbelief with Refn’s films, but this is just ridiculous.
I’m also just about over Ryan Gosling’s stoicism. I remember being absolutely amazed by the coldness and distance of his role in Drive, which I still believe is a remarkable performance. Here, he practically re-enacts his Driver part, only with half the dialogue. In this sense, his acting felt more like a self-parody than the genuine, cold-hearted caricature that I’m sure it was intended on presenting. In retrospect, none of the individuals in this film act like real people in the slightest way possible. There is such a blatant lack of motive or personality, keeping me from caring at all about what happens to anyone. Above all, I felt that the writing was so desperately reaching to aim at an entirely obscure level of esoteric. Honestly, this annoys me. While I’m not asking every morsel of information to be spoon-fed to me, its mere inaccessibility in the narrative style and its nature of storytelling is plain insulting. I would hesitate to label it as “style over substance”, only because it’s substance is inches away from non-existence.
But not everything in Only God Forgives is as frustrating as I’ve made it out to be. Larry Smith’s cinematography, for example, is utterly praise-worthy. He previously did camerawork for Refn’sBronson, which is one of the few elements of that film that I enjoyed; thus, history repeats itself with this newest effort. The neon-laced atmosphere of literally every moment of this work is highlighted by an unsurmountable level of distaste and tension. Every shot is remarkably framed; if there is anything this film should receive awards for, let it be in the visual department. Finally, on a personal note, I would willingly own the musical soundtrack to this film, if only to be perpetually bathed in its rich ambiance, long after the movie leaves my thoughts.
The strangest thing about Only God Forgives is that, despite my general dissatisfaction, I could definitely see why so many would love this film as much as it has been proven. While it is hard for me to believe that someone could completely “get” this film upon a naked, singular viewing, it also kind of saddens me to know that the individuals who booed it at Cannes most likely did so out of an unwillingness to accept such an atypical style of filmmaking. Therefore, I am completely willing to let my opinion of this film be as flexible as possible, if only for the mere chance that there is much more than my surface viewing may have picked up. For now, however, the film remains to be a visual treat that, unfortunately, is muddled in intention and absent of emotion; I am, therefore, absent in concern.