What’s up with Only God Forgives?
A few months back Refn’s newest film, “Only God Forgives” was being regarded as one of the highest anticipated films of the Summer. Then at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival, it recieved numerous boos from the audience, as well as many critics giving it fairly harsh reviews. General complaints were that it was a violent, aimless mess, that was not paced out very well and did not reach the heights of his previous film, the critically lauded “Drive.”
An initial flurry of bad reviews at Cannes is disputed by some to be this ironic rite of passage. The most well known of the victims is Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” which is now regarded as one of Scorsese’s best films. Will all of this wonderful information in mind, I ordered OGF on demand to see for myself what it was all about; and boy was it a ride.
So, many people who have seen OGF make comparisons with it to one of Refn’s earlier films called “Valhalla Rising.” Rising is a film that takes place during the times of the original vikings and is mostly without much dialogue. Me personally, I couldn’t make it through that film. Rising is the definition of a slow pace. Now contrary to these people I strongly feel that OGF has many more ties to Drive than it does to Valhalla, and it’s all for better than for worse.
To support my opinion about OGF, I’ll talk about what Refn’s original viewpoints on Drive were. His original intentions were to make Drive this sort of bizarre fairy tale/folk tale that takes place in Los Angeles; it would be about this hero who rises and becomes more powerful than he could ever imagine. Because of this structure it has very traditional romantic themes: the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, and therefore a much more structured 3-act basis.
What Refn aimed to do with OGF was use his fairly tale basis once again, only this time morph it into a story of complicated revenge. This ties into the more visceral Chinese tales of old and because of this OGF separates itself from the structured/traditional settings set forth by Drive.
Refn subs out his stylistic inspirations of the 70’s American car films and instead takes on both the visual style of Kubrick as well as the surrealistic nature of David Lynch. The story’s main characters are a family of gangsters: two sons (Julian & Billy) and their mother (Crystal). Julian and Billy have left America and are now living in Hong Kong. While Julian works as a fight promoter, both him and his brother work a drug ring for the family. Billy gets built up as this awful human being who lusts for a young girl to rape & murder. When he is successful, a straight cop named Chang sees to it that vengeance is met and has the girl’s father beat Billy to death.
The result becomes Crystal’s search for vengeance upon Chang, which starts with her trying to push her son Julian to do the deed. It becomes apparent that her and Julian have a troubled past. At one point Crystal hints that Julian suspected her and Billy to be in an incestuous relationship.
As the film progresses we find that Julian sees Chang as this God like character and subconsciously hopes that Chang can save him from this connection that is made with his mother. On the surface this is a film about a mother’s search for vengeance, but deep down it is more about sons and their relationships to their mothers, and man’s relationship with God.
Aside from Kristen Scott-Thomas’ towering performance, the magnitude of Crystal is apparent through Julian’s behavior around her. Even though their relationship is strained, Julian still aims to impress his mother and show her that through everything he is still living a normal life. He brings a prostitute he has developed a close relationship with to dinner with his mother. The result is Crystal berating the escort in every way possible. Aside from the fact that this adds more to her awful persona, it also shows her weakness, which is her son(s).
Getting vengeance for Billy’s death becomes an obsession, and also makes Crystal push Julian harder to finding Chang and killing him. She clearly played favorites with Billy and now wishes to make Julian something he is not: a skilled/blood-thirsty killer. The relationship between Julian and Crystal is Refn’s commentary on motherhood. It shows how far mothers go for their sons while at the same time showing the negative impacts the relationship can have on both parties. Julian is portrayed as this tortured soul due to his mother’s upbringing, and it’s obvious from his brother’s behavior as well that she was not exactly a knowledgable parent.
By the conclusion of the film, Crystal has done all she can to get back at Chang for taking her son (God exercising justice) and after trying to kill him (reject God) he now performs judgment and execution on her. It shows the power of a mother loosing her son, and the lengths in which she would go, as well as support the idea that within the world of the film, Chang is God.
The title itself reflect Julian’s quest to not seek revenge upon his brother’s killer, but be forgiven of the sins he has committed. From the beginning of the film, Julian has these visions of Chang as this angel of vengeance, one who should be feared by all. Upon realizing that this person is Chang, Julian shows little to no signs of wanting to kill or in any way harm the cop. He instead seeks to understand who this person is.
Chang is portrayed throughout the film as this God-like figure who is respected by his men, does whatever it takes to find justice, and sings karaoke. Refn claims that karaoke is for the asian community a spiritual experience, one that resonates throughout their culture, and because of this it makes more sense why Chang performs karaoke multiple times within the story. He represents what is just and fair in this world; a force that cannot be fully understood of explained.
At the climax of the film, Julian participates in a fist fight with Chang. The result is Chang pummeling the living hell out of Julian, leaving him battered and broken on the floor. After the fight, Crystal gives up hope on her son, and the prostitute turns away. What many critics felt was Julian being a poor fighter was quite the opposite. Julian is clearly a well skilled fighter, however he was fighting man on man with God himself. This was Julian’s final judgement.
By the end of the film, Julian betrays his mother, and allows Chang and his daughter to live, while allowing himself to be judged by the blade of God. The movie concludes with Chang singing one final karaoke number.
So, was this all executed well on Refn’s part? My answer is a definite yes.
Refn made a film not many people expected. Because of its distance with Drive, many disparage it as an experiment gone wrong. I see OGF more of a deeper dive into these complicated folk tales Refn is attempting tell us. While Drive is about the rise of a hero, OGF is about literally facing God and atoning for your sins. No three act structure or clear protagonist is necessary for a story of this magnitude.
Visually the film is unbelievable. It contains a wonderful blend of Kubrick’s framing as well as the visual style of the film “Enter the Void” (which Refn cited as a major inspiration). The performances by Gosling, Scott-Thomas, and Pansringarm are fantastic, as they are given very acute information to flesh out characters yet pull it off very well.
Films such as this one bring up the entire idea of film criticism and how it is opinion based. No one who says whether this film is good or bad has actual facts in front of them. It is a lesson in its own to just watch films regardless of popular opinion (as much as you can) and judge the film for yourself.
I myself always struggle with such activities, but when a film like OGF affects me the way it did, and then I see the number of people who shrug it off makes me realize the critics aren’t always the undisputed truth in their judgements.
To conclude this one, if you’re a fan of Refn’s work still give Only God Forgives a try, and don’t let the critics mold how you feel.