First of all, forget about Drive. If you know Nicolas Winding Refn’s style and like it then you’ll enjoy this movie. We have Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, who is even emptier than the character he portrayed in Drive. He barely speaks, has no center, and cannot be a man with the woman he loves. In an early scene, we see him sliding his hand up her skirt in a nightclub. He is not just copping a happy feel; trembling, he is approaching the altar of Woman. We then see him walking down a scary hallway. He extends his hand to open a dark door when…SLICE…Chang cuts his arm off. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to deduce the symbolism of the arm that must be severed when it reaches out. With no spoiler to be given away, it’s a very moody, stylish crime story that’s too artistic to be just called a genre film, that (plus the slow montage) could be a problem when this plays in mainstream cinema complexes where people with a limited attention span won’t like this. Overall it’s a bit disappointing but worth to see, if only for the photography.
It has the same type of artwork that made Drive such a great accomplishment but it takes it a little further. This is done to a point where you can either choose to relate to its ruthlessness and brutality ( it is an extremely violent film) or discard it for it. The setting and scenes are played out beautifully but the pacing feels off as it builds up really slow and never gains pace throughout the showing. At times you feel like you are witnessing scenes from a wonderfully shot masterpiece, yet the next moment it can be as if these scenes add up to nothing substantial. To me it feels as if the director has been overly ambitious and at particular moments he managed to make it work but overall it doesn’t hit home. It tries so hard to be memorable and refreshing that at times it turns into a parody of itself.
There is however lots of silence, dark brooding nothingness, Thai Karaoke, lots of blood and questionable sexual relations of one sort or another. Perhaps these elements were supposed to fill the void. Again, not very subtle. The true problem is that Refn isn’t even remotely interested in the plot or the characters. It’s all about mood, style and in the end, the theme(s) of the film. And those aspects do work, although some may argue that the film is a bit too ambiguous at times. For example, the whole “Chang is god” theme/subplot doesn’t really come across. The pacing is also a bit off and there is simply too much focus on brutal execution scenes. All negative stuff aside, the film does have a bunch of qualities, such as some extremely cool sequences and great acting from Kristin and Ryan. It is very well directed in some places and on an aesthetic level, it’s mind blowing. So on one hand I liked it, even loved it, but other times I am really conflicted. Truely one of the hardest films I’ve had the opportunity to review.
This is a movie which moves along at a snail’s pace, and even at a runtime of 90 minutes, it feels like many hours go by before even a single thing happens. Even the characters move and turn slowly. The plot, such as it is, you would probably find worth watching, but Nicolas Winding Refn peppers it with pseudo-dream sequences and many pointless scenes that drag on for ever, so that the plot becomes hard to stay interested in. Aside from Scott Thomas’ acting, the only other redeeming quality of this film is the excellent way in which most scenes are set up and shot. The sets, the camera movement, the placement of the actors, all of these make up for some truly gorgeous shots. Overall, sad as I am to say it, I cannot recommend seeing Only God Forgives.