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Goose Fare: Only God Forgives Reviewed
Patrick Smith , August 2nd, 2013 09:06

Patrick Smith picks a fight with Nicholas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's follow up to the acclaimed Drive

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A large part of director Nicholas Winding Refn's previous film Drive’s popularity and apparent freshness stemmed from its reappropriation of aesthetics traditionally associated with post-War European Art Cinema. By presenting a relatively straightforward, commercially viable narrative with an increased degree of stylisation and experimentation (when set against most current Hollywood products), Drive had the ability to appeal to a variety of tastes and to transcend various high/low-trash/art categorisations. Such strategies are of course nothing new within mainstream cinematic productions. Various works of Altman, Raffelson, P.T. Anderson, Malick, Hopper, Soderbergh, Mann and Cassavetes, have, to drastically varying degrees and over a large time period, used clashing stylisation and narrative content to cross such taste divides. As such, these filmmakers were able to generate conversation and admiration in both artistic and commercial spheres- garnering critical kudos and financial reward. Drive's reappropriation of differing styles, including narrative longuers, long takes and reduced causal linkages, offered Refn’s camera the time to simply stare at, and enshrine, Ryan Gosling's image and star persona. Suppression of narration and increased use of long takes sent Gosling’s popularity into overdrive.

Only God Forgives expands upon many of the aesthetic choices made in Drive, however the end result is much less effective. The straightforward narrative of the previous film meshed well with Refn's style- clarity of purpose shone through, both within the central character's motivation and Refn's direction. The main issue with Only God… is that the narrative is muddier in both content and organisation. Where Drive circled around a valiant romance, Only God’s… central relationship is a schlockier Oedipal tug of war between mother and son. Julian Thompson (Gosling) runs a Muay Thai boxing club in Bangkok, a front for his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke) drug dealings. Billy is killed in revenge attack, facilitated by Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), after the rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute. Julian initially distances himself from the death of his brother, for understandable reasons- firstly the involvement of the law in the killing, and secondly the heinous nature of Billy’s crime. It is only after the arrival of the pair’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), that Julian is pressured into taking action. This short, and truncated, synopsis highlights the fact that Refn’s new film has a lot more going on than the pair’s previous collaboration. There are more characters to deal with here, but Refn continues to build on the narrative suppression of Drive. A relatively complex story is delivered with the same minimalist sensibility, thus occasionally confusing events and character motivation. What worked well for a film with one central character makes this new work seem unwieldy and messy. The narrative tracks do not cohere into something more overarching and Gosling’s stoic 'non-acting' is pushed to absurd extremes.

The rest of the film mainly riffs off three narrative strands- Crystal’s manipulation of Julian (and all the Oedipal significance Refn can lump in), languid and beautified episodes of violence that extend from Crystal’s puppetry, and finally, something new for the Refn/Gosling behemoth, attempts at some inner-psychological exploration by way of interspersed dreamlike flashbacks. On a purely functional level, these flashbacks fail due to the fact that they are never demarcated from the rest of the film. They largely drift by without advancing the narrative or fleshing out Julian’s reactions to the events around him. The result then is clunky gearshifts between these pseudo-emotive psychological episodes and the more campy Oedipal interactions. In addition, Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance is tonally ill suited throughout. Her absurdly unpleasant interactions with a hotel receptionist verge on the comical- taking the film somewhere I’m unsure Refn wanted to go: into the realm of bad exploitation, complete with clunky one-liners.

The film’s saving grace is the fact that it undeniably looks great. Larry Smith’s cinematography lends this very unreal and skewed neo-Bangkok a dazzling sheen. The slow creeps and retreats down corridors have a formal brilliance, the fight sequences are tidily composed and the city dazzles. Yet there is a huge hole at the film’s heart and it remains unable to draw us in emotionally. Of course this could have been Refn’s intention. Perhaps this emotional detachment is meant to expound on Julian’s inner psychology- destroyed by both physical and mental abuse. Though I think this is being too generous. The dream sequences seem to strive for something to draw the film together emotionally, though ultimately they fall into the same vacuous hole. Where Drive circulated around one character, building to a solid emotional crescendo, Only God… is too unfocused in where it wants to place its emotional grip.

Refn’s rigorous adherence to his cultivated style marks him out as a very self-conscious filmmaker. Similarly, Gosling’s unwavering faith in his deadpan acting suggests a lack of confidence to break new territory. Perhaps with his next feature Refn can push forward into unexplored ground, challenging expectations, rather than fulfilling preconceptions- an ethos central to the work of all the aforementioned directors, in whose towering company Refn might one day be considered.

Only God Forgives is in UK cinemas from today

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Aug 2, 2013 2:14pm

With regards to his best work (Pusher I&II,Valhalla Rising), next time, Winding Refn might consider returning to work with his acting giant of a collaborator Mads Mikkelsen, because let's be frank Gosling is lightweight. He's all good looks-looking cool and aloof. Drive was good, but I don't intend watching this movie.

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Kubrick's Fat Ghost
Aug 2, 2013 3:24pm

Patrick Smith made me run to my film studies text books to define some of the language he effectively uses here. The movie does have a great look to it and Refn once again uses music well, both elements combining to create a compelling atmosphere. The story is a bit of a mess and Gosling is a little dull but I enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas' Donatella Versace-inspired campiness. Overall it felt like the whole thing could have gained from a less ponderous edit. I look forward to Refn's next one and more reviews from Smith.

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Aug 2, 2013 5:23pm

discokid was a big fan of DRIVE. not to mention the whole idea of filling the whole movie with johnny jewel's score, which unfortunately didn't happen, sigh.
its a little disappointing now what happened in ONLY GOD FORGIVES.
it's a very well designed & goodlooking copy of a David Lynch movie.
let's wait and see what Winding Refn will do next.
in the meantime discokid will listen to Norma Jean's I JUST CAN'T WAIT FOR SATURDAY.

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Aug 2, 2013 9:04pm

Nice review, but it is distinctly lacking any mention of Cliff Martinez guttural/brown noise scoring. I saw the film two months ago and the soundscape is the rapturous glory to what is otherwise a totally bobbins, artless and portentous bit of film-school wank material.

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Aug 2, 2013 9:13pm

What post-war euro art cinema are you watching? I happen to think of all Refn's movies are hyper-stylized empty excavations of violence, but I honestly don't see what any of them have in common (aesthetically) with european modernist films, not to mention any of the other american directors you throw out here (with the exception of Mann).

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Aug 3, 2013 3:01pm

In reply to lazlo:

Roundly agree with Lazlo, here. Making a comparison to European 'high' cinema to then conclude the film has no substance is to make your original comparison rather redundant. Refn is severely over-rated: he makes pretty, stylised, faux-auteur movies in an industry that is otherwise happy with CGI blast-a-thons and necrophiliac comic franchises.

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Patrick Smith
Aug 4, 2013 4:17pm

In reply to aaron.:

Hi there Lazlo and Aaron,
Thanks for the comments. I actually specify in the review that, in my opinion, Refn reappropriates certain stylistic/aesthetic elements that have an origin within post-War European Art Cinema. Reappropriation is defined “as [the] action of reabsorbing subcultural styles and forms, or those from other cultures, into mass culture through a process of commodification”. I don’t suggest that Refn's work has the same ideological/political aims as many works within that earlier European movement. I think, however, it’s hard to disagree that Refn reworks elements that have a historical lineage extending back to post-War European Art Cinema- including narrative suppression/ longueurs , long takes (often tracking shots) and reduced causal linking. However, he uses these to further accentuate the commodified “celeb” aura that Gosling has circulating around him- thus he is reappropriating. I think that the American directors I outline have to some degree also reworked techniques from this earlier European movement- for an array of reasons, but chiefly to bridge high art/trash valuations- as mention in my first paragraph. Martijn ter Haar- sadly reviewing is a subjective practice, and whilst I appreciate what you are saying it is difficult to accept your subjective criticism of my initially subjective claim-my “mindset” is clearly different to yours and a fundamental difference of opinion cannot always be resolved.

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Aug 5, 2013 10:25am

Forget 'emotional depth'. OGF is a Greek tragedy for catatonics. It is much less derivative than 'Drive' and ultimately better. This said, it is not that great a movie. Still, kind of nice, even if not my cup of tea.

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Aug 6, 2013 3:55pm

A very fair and balanced review, and one with which I completely agree. I very much enjoyed Drive and felt that the techniques Refn employed in that film worked well and made sense. Not so here. Goslings "non-acting" has reached its nadir for me and in fact was getting on my nerves, and KST seemed like she was beamed in from another film entirely.
It does look beautiful though, and is superbly shot, but sadly that's not enough for me and I felt I had no emotional engagement with this film on any level. Also, I didn't enjoy the scenes of violence - Refn may think he is "beautifying" violence, which I don't agree with him on; and I found the treatment of women in the film quite insulting; as it only added to the stock portrayals of most major Hollywood productions.

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Aug 7, 2013 9:01am

Thoroughly enjoyed Only God Forgives (and all previous Winding Refn films). He draws in the masses by plastering Ryan Gosling all over the shop and promises of all out action then makes them sit through ponderous art-house creations (except the 3 people who upped and left during my viewing), more power to him.

Visually, I felt there was one clear cinematic reference above all others in this film: the neon-glazed look of Chung-king Express immediately sprung to mind, following which I read that it's one of Refn's favourite films.

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tony m
Aug 11, 2013 7:36pm

I liked the karaoke song at the end. The aul Thais go nuts for karaoke.

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