Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
*I’d put a quote here, but that’s implying the movie actually had something interesting to say*
Ahoy, humans! Aidan here.
I use that word very particularly: “Humans.”
Why? Because yesterday I spent ninety minutes in a warped cinematic acid trip in which the notion of realistic people doing realistic things was abandoned in favor of, well….
It has to be art, right?
As a passionate cinephile who yearns for modern cinematic innovation, I’m all for the unconventional. I welcome alternative narrative strategies. I love when films are able to successfully subvert the notions of what characterization, dialogue, and pacing should and need to be. With 2011’s Drive – which led my Top 10 list of the year and currently holds the #2 spot in my personal Top 5 – rogue filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn sucked us into a fairy tale world of truly spartan storytelling. That film’s confident restraint and faith in the raw power of its story ultimately catapulted it into masterpiece territory.
We didn’t need witty dialogue, seven-camera action sequences or mindless CGI – all we needed to know was there was a hero, the woman he had to protect, and people he had to protect her from. That simplistic a tale hadn’t been told with such stylistic effectiveness or naive confidence since George Lucas’s Star Wars‘s in 1977.
I don’t always need characters with names. I don’t even need that much of a plot. But, come on, I need something.
Only God Forgives is the sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner, in which robots spend the entire film disguised as humans. It stars Rutger Hauer as Julian, a respected figure in the Thai criminal underworld who owns a boxing ring with his brother Billy (Burke). After his Billy is murdered by a police officer (Pansringarm), Julian is pressured by his cold-blooded mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to exact vengeance.
The cinematography is gorgeous. Cliff Martinez’s score is as tastefully vicious in its synth madness as ever. But the characters…. there are none. Drive succeeded because its characters said only what they needed to say – not because they didn’t talk. Here, Refn’s style borders on self-parody. I’m being generous in approximating seventy lines of dialogue in the entire film, twenty-two of which are one-to-five word sentences mumbled by Gosling’s “protagonist.” Who are we supposed to be rooting for, again? How much of the “plot” would I have grasped had I not read synopses prior to viewing the film?
Anti-heroes are cool. Moral ambiguity is even cooler. Flat-out not knowing what the film wants to convey because none of its characters are fleshed-out, well…. that’s just ridiculous.
In film – hell, in all fiction – action isn’t compelling because of what’s happening, it’s compelling because of whom it’s happening to and why it’s happening. Characters act within the bounds of what they would do in a film’s universe, and drama unfolds because of it. In Only God Forgives, none of that is the case – characters act randomly, robotically, and without reason. Scenes are unintentionally comical because of it.
The excuse that all of this is serving a higher narrative thesis is rendered invalid – or simply not worth it – by how many fundamental principles of film this movie ignores.
It wants to subvert, but just falls flat in ignoring the staples that make movies, well…. movies. Refn had too much creative freedom with too little inspiration.
Only God Forgives is a gorgeous failure. Poetics, allusions, and allegories should enrich a film’s meaning – not serve as crutches for a weak plot and even weaker characters. It’s visual candy, but narrative vomit.