'Only God Forgives': Nicolas Winding Refn's Controversial Follow-up to 'Drive'
The polarizing successor to Refn's acclaimed film set the stage for everything he's done since.
There aren't many movies like Drive. Of course, you don't have to look far to find an '80s-inspired retro movie with enough neon and synth soundtracks to keep any nostalgic cinephile happy with an era they never lived through, but Drive A masterful blend of art-style sensibilities that breaks through commercial blockbusters, making it a rare mixture that appeals to high-profile critics and casual audiences alike. One minute Nicolas Winding Refn is leaving Cannes with the best director award in his pocket, and the next he's watching his latest film, which has grossed $81 million worldwide — for a movie that still has a firm grip on market share, it's the Art House aspect of the staggering numbers debate. Suddenly thrust into the Hollywood spotlight with offers to direct blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Spectre, Refin was never one to take the obvious approach. Instead, he turned his attention to Only God Forgives, a decidedly more personal project that would set the tone for the rest of his career.
Based on first impressions, Only God Forgives probably seems like it should be named Drive 2 because of how much they resemble each other: The Expressionists In a world bathed in neon, a synth-heavy score provided by Cliff Martinez, long silences punctuated by quick bursts of violence, Ryan Gosling returns to his most famous The character is "a person who barely speaks or changes facial expressions". No doubt Lionsgate wanted to repeat Drive's lightning-quick success, but it soon became clear that the opposite was happening. Its Cannes premiere was met with boos and a highly polarizing response, while its general release saw it underwhelming at the box office amid even worse critical reception (the most dire of which simply described it as "unwatchable"). It disappeared shortly after as "another Refn/Gosling collaboration" and is now considered little more than a footnote while its older brother continues to earn fame.
'Only God Forgives' Failed to Replicate What Made 'Drive' a Success
But why is Only God Forgives despite imitating a formula that has proven so successful? It probably won't earn any originality points, but that hasn't stopped plenty of spin-off films from gaining approval from critics. A lot of that stems from its plot, or rather its lack of focus on Julian (Gosling), the owner of a boxing club in Bangkok. One night, his brother Billy (Tom Burke) raped and murdered an underage prostitute before committing suicide on the authority of Sheriff Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Billy's friends are quick to retaliate, and soon a never-ending cycle of violence erupts as each seeks revenge on the other - the brothers' vicious mother, Kristol (Kristin Scott Thomas) The arrival fueled the feeling that Julian had been thrust into the war's most prominent role against his will. There's a lot to complain about about the plot, the most obvious criticism being that it's just too stale. Things quickly become repetitive as violence begets more violence, with little sign that we're moving in a more substantial direction, and even with a 90-minute runtime, it still feels overly long.
The biggest problem is how mean it is. The movie has no inherent claim to be interesting, but the relentless bleakness of Only God Forgives directly crossing the line of acceptable will turn most viewers away within minutes. Driving isn't an easy stroll on country roads, but there are Carey Mulligan sparkles too Erin, the struggling next-door neighbor, and her desire to give her son a better life became the linchpin in justifying all of this massacre. Only God Forgives lacks an equivalent moral backbone, resulting in a film made entirely of reprehensible people who think bloodshed is the solution to all life's problems. Maybe that's the point, but when the later parts seem to want you to care about them, even though none of them are real people, you start to question what Refn is trying to achieve.
But Refn is hardly known for his Kaufmanian plots, and he always tends to focus on his unique technique of presentation. Watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film is like being transported to a dreamlike realm, where the work of David Lynch is fused with a twisted neon version of German Expressionism, and only God will forgive seeing Refn take this style to the extreme. If you liked Ryan Gosling's menacing command of silence in Drive, get ready for him to crank it up to 11 with a presumably mute character. He has 17 lines in total and spends the rest of his time in Gazing into space, even though the movie wants you to, makes it hard to invest in his plight. In fact, everyone in Bangkok seems to be struck by a pain that prevents them from communicating beyond a blank stare—a common technique in Refn's films, but combined with everyone's meandering through The way they live through the scenery, changing like their batteries are dying to die, is enough to test anyone's patience.
For All Its Faults, There's Still a Lot to Admire
However, there is something admirable about "Only God Forgives". It takes an intrepid director to follow up their most acclaimed and accessible film with the cinematic equivalent of an endurance test. So closely following the formula of said film while twisting it enough that an element that was once lauded is now the subject of outrage is even braver. The neon lights are bolder, the bloody violence more shocking, and the long silences more (er...) longer. Quite fascinating to look at, and reiterates what a neat balancing act Drive is. This may be why artists fail to understand that people like their work, but Refn has always shown So precise that it's hard to believe he'd do anything without careful planning. Instead, it comes across as deliberately alienating his newfound fans so that he can return to his comfort zone as Denmark's most harrowing director. Call it genius, call it madness, but few directors have the confidence to do it.
"Only God Forgives" will be celebrating its 10th birthday in a few months, and revisiting it today will make its stronger aspects clearer. It's easy to overlook that Refn is a phenomenal world-builder, and in Bangkok's version, he traps his character in what seems to exist halfway in a spiral leading to hell, all while emanating from unidentifiable sources Shot under sinister red light. It's a stunning creation, and when layered with Martinez's hypnotic soundtrack, you have an audiovisual experience that rivals anything on the market. Then there's Scott Thomas channeling Lady Macbeth, if she's reincarnated in the show as a sadistic crime boss, single-handedly earning a recommendation for "Only God Forgives." Her Oedipal relationship with Julian is both fascinating and repulsive, and much of their history goes unreported, one of the few experiences he has Silence proved beneficial. Refn has always had a knack for uncovering actors' hidden talents (see also Albert Brooks in Drive), and what he's accomplished with Scott Thomas is nothing short of a triumph.
'Only God Forgives' Built the Foundations for the Rest of Refn's Career
The retrospective analysis by Only God Forgives was milder than the original review, but unfortunately it was too late to recover the damage. Its critical flop was enough to kill his chances of making another big-budget movie overnight, but given that Refn has built his career out of premium exploitation films destined not to please casual audiences, he's unlikely to care. He continued his mission to push the boundaries of good taste in 2016's The Neon Demon, with scenes of cannibalism, naked women bathed in blood and Jena Malone having sex with a dead body. Reviews were again polarizing, though more positive than last time (perhaps because anyone who watched would have a better idea of what to expect). Meanwhile, his recent forays into television, starring in Amazon's Too Old to Die and Netflix's Copenhagen Cowboys, have him testing the limits of his still-dead fans. Slow-paced workouts are manageable 90 minutes, but when that length is just the runtime of an episode, you start to wonder if Refn is pulling all this off as part of an elaborate prank.
Looking back on everything he's done since Drive, it's clear Refn doesn't want to go back to the land of critical and commercial success. And let's not forget, this is the same guy who thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a good choice for a first date, and whose filmography is often reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky's equally polarizing Works, so he slams on the brakes and directs a likable always silly. He's a windfall outsider, and while you won't find him complaining about everyone who appreciates his work, he ends up making films for himself. There is no better proof than that only God can forgive. It's a mess, but it's also often breathtaking, always riveting, curated by an artist who is in complete control of his craft. Its unwavering commitment to its own vision is a philosophy that Refn has refused to back down from since, and while the result won't be to everyone's taste, it hasn't worked The Art Islands as entertainment, most people are better off looking elsewhere, but as a 90-minute thesis statement about his future career, it's absolutely perfect.