I’m not sure if it makes me a philistine or a snob, but I loved Only God Forgives. It wasn’t narratively sprite, it was 30 minutes too long, the characters were one-dimensional, there was a lot of gore, and a lot of quiet, but none of that ruined it for me. If anything those are the things that made it great.
Critics have pointed out that the film more than anything is a vanity project or the inside joke of Nicolas Winding Refn, which is fair. Within those criticisms are also praises for Only God’s Lynchian nightmare landscapes, Cliff Martinez’ score, and the grand dragoness performance of Kristin Scott Thomas. Other writers are issuing mere pooh-poohs, which are incredibly reductive. Have we really gotten to a point where there have to be slapstick, explosions, one-liners, and a striptease for a movie to be a good time? And for the absence of those distractions to be just cause for deeming a film inert and unworthy?
I haven’t seen The Heat, and I hear it’s a big barrel of laughs from everyone’s grandmother and mom, but it’s officially been thrown out there by a yahoo at New Statesman (looking forward to our twitter feud, Ryan Gilbey) that it was better than Only God Forgives. It’s fine to say you enjoyed one more than the other, but to compare the two? One is a Hollywood comedy behemoth, and the other is Refn’s experimental follow-up to his critically acclaimed Drive. It just seems irrelevant to draw a comparison.
I, for one, am happy the divide between arthouse and blockbuster has shrunk a little bit. It’s no longer a crime to find joy in production-house bait, there’s a new middle ground between lowbrow and highbrow (Superbad, Anchorman, This Is The End, etc.), and the straight-no-chaser-variety indies have a bit more self-awareness and joy nowadays. As someone who can and will argue that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a masterpiece of cinema, I’m on everyone’s side who doesn’t want to be talked down to at the movies. But I don’t think that is what Refn is doing.
For me the film was like a 21st century talkie. It had the mystery and pulsation of a noir, or Metropolis, or something seething with untapped potential energy. It has a scaly underbelly that’s always scraping loudly against the pavement while you watch its metallic back slither. Its panoramas, use of light, use of shadow, use of sound, subtlety, audacity, and the time Refn allows for each elaborately art-directed and cinemograph-ed scene to burn into your mind, reminded me of why people used to watch movies.
If there is one criticism I agree with, it’s that Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Julian was flat. His character is written as the weary son of a fire-breathing drug queenpin (Thomas) who loses her last inkling of respect when he refuses to avenge his brother’s murder. Gosling goes more mute than misunderstood, almost comically shouting at his prostitute/girlfriend as though to offer range, when really the character wasn’t played with enough depth for a speaking voice. There have been Hamlet comparisons, and I see what they’re shooting at, but Oedipus seems a more apt allusion with the incestuous advances of Julian’s mother and her one randomly placed remark about Julian having killed his father with his bare hands. Regardless, as usual Gosling is still captivating to watch.
I also agree with John Patterson of The Guardian that Refn’s idols make it onto the screen more than he does. I thought the movie read kind of like what Kill Bill would have if Quentin Tarantino had been a woman, or what Lost In Translation would have read like if Sophia Coppola were a man. I think all of the comparisons to other filmmakers really are stemming more from the fact that Refn is portraying the orient, his specific version of which a lot of people are calling racist, but in reality they are mistaking his stylization for something else.
All of the criticism of Only God being “vacuous and ponderous” reminded me of Lars Von Treir’s Melancholia, which I loved, but if I think if you’re going to call anything pretentious, slow, and boring, it would be that over this. So what is it really about Only God that has gotten everyone in such a tizzy? Personally I think the fate told in a sage 2006 film titled Idiocracy is finally coming to fruition. Shares, speed, and salaciousness are more important in criticism than what used to be, and with the immediacy of all journalism now, poor Only God Forgives never had a chance up next to Sandra Bullock screaming to a bus about her vagina.