"One of the worst films ever" was one response heard upon leaving the multiplex. "Almost the worst film I've ever seen," said another critic on radio; the thing is, that was followed up with, "second only to Inland Empire". Perhaps this says something for the lack of truly awful films the person has actually seen, but if you are familiar with the reference to the Lynch directed masterpiece, or in fact David Lynch at all, you are already most of the way towards knowing whether you can sit through the hour and a half that is 'Only God Forgives'.
Nicolas Winding Refn's second collaboration with Ryan Gosling was not going to be a Gosling film at all; it was only due to the dropping out of a fairly unknown British actor, for a role in 'The Hobbit', and Gosling's desire to help his best buddy director, that lead to where we are now. Where are we? We have an art house film that was hated at the Cannes Film Festival, and which would have most likely bypassed most casual cinema goers had it not been for the big name, actually drawing in crowds of excited but naive Gosling fans, and curious but naive passers-by, on a trip out for their weekend's entertainment. Sadly for them, 'The Notebook' this is not.
Remove 'Drive' from Refn's catalogue and 'Only God Forgives' sits as a steady continuation of his vision; 'Drive' is in fact the most accessible and "Hollywood" the man has ever gone, or may likely ever go. Sadly for many who do not know of the 'Pusher' trilogy, 'Bronson', 'Fear X' or 'Valhala Rising', it makes for high expectations ripe for the shattering! Forget any comparison with 'Drive'; the film features Gosling, who again says very little, features explosions of violence and looks absolutely gorgeous. That is about all the two films have in common. The story, as far as it is one, is of Julian, who runs a muay thai boxing club as a cover for more shady dealings. His older brother does something awful and vengeance is visited upon him; this prompts the devil of the piece, Julian's poisonous mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas as you have never seen, to fly in and order Julian avenge his brother's demise. Julian cannot do this, and so follows the tripped out dream-scape that seems to be a vague effort at a revenge tale, a spiritual journey which serves as an exploration of the futility of vengeance, the battle between forces of good and evil, the damage of guilt, self-loathing, the need for forgiveness and redemption, the Oedipal complex of a man broken and owned by his mother, and shattered masculinity, all delivered with shadows of Shakespeare in the background.
The top of the list of great things about this film is the cinematography; you can DESPISE this, and still need to concede that we are unlikely to see a film whose framing, lighting and textures are more terribly seductive. Larry Smith shot 'Eyes Wide Shut' with Stanley Kubrick, and has worked with Refn twice previously; based on the evidence, it is fair to say Refn has found his partner, just as Chris Nolan had with Wally Pfister. Next up, the sound editing and Cliff Martinez's score rumble, grind and push at the edges of the piece. Martinez previously worked with Refn on 'Drive', but again, there is little comparison. The performances are all very good, but it should be noted, and this is meant absolutely sincerely, it could be easy to watch this with the wrong mindset. These people are not characters, they are archetypes; do not expect standard characterisation.
Now, the violence! For all the uproar about how full-on this movie is, it is quite clear this criticism comes from people whose high water mark for extremity is 'Saw'. I should note, this is not a complaint; in fact, I rather admire the technique of always cutting away, or shooting the violent scenes in such a way that we, the audience, aren't completely privy to the retribution. Even if a belief that this ties in with a theme of the film is incorrect, it is still safe to assume that it was Refn's intention to defy our expectation of what we are going to see every time. This does, however, lead me to say that the violence is tame. Yes, it is extremely stylish, but I have seen more raw and disturbing violence in Scorsese's pictures than in this one.
In many areas admirable for its Kubrick-standard perfection, but admittedly tiring, this is a film that will find its most loyal audience in the art house crowd. If you only watch films for a standard western approach, an entertaining story, with a clear through-line and plot, characters with traditional arcs and actors giving dialogue-driven performances, then avoid at ALL costs! If you grasp the idea that a film can be something else, an expression like a Salvador Dali painting, in which every image, gesture and moment can be considered key to your understanding of what's going on, deepening your analysis of the film, then this is worth your attention, as it does have a lot going on that cannot be absorbed in one sitting. That does not mean you will love it; despite a dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky , Refn lacks the man's mastery of this sort of visual poetry. You will, however, be hard pushed to find a more strange and challenging film in the main stream for some time! Overall, this is not a scratch on Refn's best work, but it is worth giving him, and all involved, a round of applause for truly going all out to shake us out of what I will call "cinematic apathy".
Now and then we need a film like this, whether we like it or not!