By Andrew Harwood
Perhaps what makes a film alluring is its capability to captivate and stimulate an audience. Filmmakers want and almost lust after the audience’s reaction. A reaction marks the film’s reputation, which can be good or bad. This is, however, the downside of film and the industry itself: A reaction can either drown or propel a film. But, after all, we cannot expect anything else.
I’m a firm believer that no film should ever be deemed “unseeable,” because every film is entitled to an audience or niche. That said, I am critical of films that pretend to be more than what they truly are. With this in mind, this week’s film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 “Only God Forgives.”
Written and directed by Refn, “Only God Forgives” tells the story of a Bangkok drug runner, played by Ryan Gosling — who daylights as a boxing club owner — and his outset of revenge after the killing of his elder brother. Right off the bat, “Only God Forgives” promises a heightened sense of action and pleasurable imagery, through Gosling and Refn’s repertoire. But, that’s all.
For a film that revolves around the danger and suspense of illegal activity, “Only God Forgives” fails to deliver any sense of thrill. Upfront, the film is a dramatic and silhouetted mask of crime and punishment, as slow-takes and slow-motion in dark neon light compliment graphic gore. An almost fantastical tale in which quite literally nothing seems to pertain to reality — “Only God Forgives” leaves viewers with one message: Fight your inner demons.
Such a message is strong, perhaps too strong for an extremely violent, classic revenge film. Yet, the film’s promising message is lost in Refn’s stylistic approach. This approach is what I like to call — but don’t quote me on it — style-over-substance: a cliché style of filmmaking where a director favors the aesthetic over the meaning. “Only God Forgives” is the epitome of style-over-substance. What is interesting though, is the film still reflects a versatility to understanding and analysis, to its credit.
The final third of the film is quite extraordinary in my opinion, but it doesn’t make up for the lackluster events of the first 60 minutes. But, this film, which banks on such an explosive title, delivers on the idea of “up for interpretation.” I truly couldn’t recall everything that happens in “Only God Forgives,” but if someone asked me to describe it, I would have no problem doing so. Such a sensation makes me think this was Refn’s intention in the first place: to make a describable film, not a memorable one.
Such a theory, or plan I guess, doesn’t seem to fit in filmmaking in any regard. Wouldn’t directors want their film to be memorable? But memories are an interesting thing — they aid the mind in reminiscing about experiences or events that occurred. Hence, a describable film is, in a way, a memorable film: Viewers can describe it through their memory. Perhaps this is too philosophical for this blog, or even this film itself, but it makes some sense.
That said, how could we describe “Only God Forgives?” Is it a dark, gritty, poorly-acted and mediocre film pretending to be good? Yes, to all of the above.
The aesthetic of a film is equally as important as its substance — though I admit I’m a sucker for pristine shots. A film is meant to captivate, allure and beg for an understanding.
A revenge tale that lacks proper revenge norms, “Only God Forgives” is paramount in imagery but directionless in meaning.