One star out of five from Time Out London‘s Dave Calhoun: “A dread-filled electronic score, neon, zombie-like performances and violent scenes of amputation—all fail to distract from the emptiness and sheer silliness of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bangkok-set, bloody and hilariously pompous revenge yarn Only God Forgives. It marks the second collaboration (after 2011’s Drive), between the Danish director and Ryan Gosling. He plays Julian, an American drug dealer in the Thai capital who is drawn into a cycle of blood-letting when his brother kills a prostitute. It’s refreshing to see Kristin Scott Thomas completely out of character as Julian’s hard-nut mother, who arrives from the US with waist-length peroxide hair and a soul made of steel. But it’s a shame no one asked her to pack convincing dialogue and to leave the hackneyed mummy issues at home.”
Meanwhile, over at Time Out New York, Keith Uhlich: “For a little while, I was grooving on the film’s aesthetic elements—Larry Smith’s ninth-circle-of-hell cinematography, Cliff Martinez’s droning synth score, Beth Mickle’s superbly chintzy production design (love those Kubrick-esque brothels). Then the Refn-y stuff takes over: Pregnant-pause glances between characters stretch scenes way past the point of tedium, while the hyper-stylized violence is all foreboding build-up, no cathartic release…. In the press kit, Refn notes that ;the original concept… was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God.’ He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound with this laboriously overproduced dross, and I’m content to let him go on thinking.”
But the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw loves it. Five out of five stars: “The film exerts an eerie and woozy grip from the outset, with many nightmarish scenes of people walking down long, claustrophobic corridors, somehow always pulsing with dark red and green light, like the subway in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible or the tenement corridor in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There are some deeply disturbing karaoke club scenes, with crooning songs about unrequited love…. Only God Forgives will, understandably, have people running for the exits, and running for the hills. It is very violent, but Winding Refn’s bizarre infernal creation, an entire created world of fear, really is gripping. Every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance. I’m afraid it’s going to be even nastier the next time I watch it.”
“Where Drive looked similarly amazing,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “it was in addition oddly affecting and poetic in its narrative arc; this film has the twisted, dreamlike, cool vibe in spades, but it makes only a late bid for our real engagement.”
And for Variety‘s Peter Debruge, “Gosling’s inscrutability becomes a liability to the film… Does he care that his brother has died? Is he intimidated by or merely obedient toward his mother?… Watching Gosling withhold, one can practically hear the director behind the camera, demanding take after take, as he shouts, ‘Let’s try it again, only this time, more impassive!'”
“The Thai-language title sequences are just one indication that Winding Refn is embarking on the kind of cine-cultural scavenger hunt that Quentin Tarantino has undertaken with far greater depth and diligence,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “But while Only God Forgives could be accused of shallowness and lack of psychological complexity, for the target audience, it will be wicked cool entertainment.”
“For many,” writes Screen‘s Mark Adams, “it will be hard to look beyond the explicit violence and rather thinly drawn plot and characters, but there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the sheer cinematic verve, intelligence and elegance that makes Only God Forgives an immersive and brutally intriguing film.”
Interviews with Refn: Logan Hill (New York Times) and Wendy Mitchell (Screen). In the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik lists “six elements/symbols you’ll want to take note of as the movie premieres at Cannes and rolls out to theaters and VOD on July 19.”
Updates: “Those who tagged Drive with the ‘ultra-violent’ label would be well advised to give Only God Forgives a wide berth,” advises Guy Lodge at In Contention. “Refn has followed the relative romance of that gorgeous thriller with a film in which human bodies—even ones as belovedly immaculate as Ryan Gosling’s—are little more than crash test dummies, built to be broken, repeatedly and dispassionately. This isn’t a film about anything that’s on the screen—which is just as well, since apart from the surfeit of blades gliding serenely through human flesh, only faintly wrinkling the thousand-yard stares of the penetrated, there’s barely anything to speak of going on in Refn’s skinny, self-penned script. Rather, Only God Forgives is entirely about its own physical violations, and how deliberately it can design these extremities.”
Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan drives the point home: “When Gosling drags a guy across the hallway by his upper jaw, the audience cringed. When one painfully long torture sequence concluded with eye and ear mutilation, the audience revolted. When one character stuck his hand inside a woman’s slashed body, the audience locked and loaded its boos. Gosling doesn’t have much to say in this movie, but the auditorium sure did.”
Arguing the case for the defense is Adam Woodward at Little White Lies: “If Drive was Nicolas Winding Refn’s high-sheen (wheel)spin on werewolf mythology, Only God Forgives is his reconditioning of a more canonic monster. It’s a mesmerizing Oedipal ballet, a lucid fever dream that pulls you in from the opening frame and doesn’t let you go…. As a footnote it’s also intriguing that Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky. If that’s an acknowledgement of further creative emulation, it doesn’t detract one iota from what is an extraordinary singular vision from a supremely gifted filmmaker. This is by some way Refn’s most complete film. It may even be his masterpiece.”
“Winding Refn, who was born in Denmark and moved to the U.S. when he was 11, has cited The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the formative film in his experience,” notes EW‘s Owen Gleiberman, “and in Only God Forgives, he seems to be trying to blend the insane violence of a slasher film with the Lynchian oddballness of something like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me…. The trouble is, Only God Forgives doesn’t have a script so much as it has a body count.”
“[O]nly stoners who are blown away by gruesome violence and Cliff Martinez scores will have any interest in parsing this tale,” argues Jordan Hoffman at Film.com. “The rest won’t be quite so forgiving.”
“The laughter started again when the soulful thug adrift in Only God Forgives slid a hand in his dead mother’s eviscerated belly, seemingly going for her womb,” notes Manohla Dargis, dispatching to the New York Times. “Mr. Refn is back where he doesn’t belong in the main competition. To judge by the catcalls that washed over the end credits of Only God Forgives—disapproval that was challenged by the bleating of insistent yeas—Mr. Refn will continue to keep festivalgoers arguing about whether there’s anything to his neo-exploitation beyond gore-slicked surfaces.” Her verdict, in short: “risibly pretentious.”
The film’s “a sickening pornography of violence, and I mean that as a sincere compliment,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “But pornography is not often celebrated for its storylines, and so it proves here.”
“Refn certainly retains his eye for composition and his innate sense for creating a hypnotic environment,” writes Jordan Cronk at the House Next Door. “But without a second, let alone third, dimension to this story, there’s little left to thematically consider and deconstruct.”
“Gosling has tumbled into the exact trappings that Drive smartly assailed,” argues Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Gosling’s ability to riff on the exalting of the male body has been downgraded to prosaic stares and barely the semblance of personality. In one scene, he actively fingers the prostitute whom he eventually, maybe falls for, but even when aroused his face reads as he’s been inexplicably lobotomized. This isn’t a bad performance; it’s not even acting in the traditional sense. Gosling has been downgraded to a prop.”
But Refn’s got another champion in Domenico La Porta, who writes at Cineuropa that “Only God Forgives reconnects with exercises of style like Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and Pusher without, however, taking a step backwards in one of the most impressive filmographies of contemporary European cinema.”
Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club: “Only God Forgives is the worst movie I’ve seen this year, by a good margin; it does have the courage of its moronic convictions, though, and that does count for something. Better striking garbage like this than tasteful mediocrities.”
“Style aside, Only God Forgives is of interest for an oddly compelling thematic structure that involves a series of decisions (and non-decisions) by fathers and daughters, mothers and sons,” suggests Glenn Heath Jr. at Press Play.
“The collision of violent spasms and art-film ennui leave the viewer’s brain bloody but unfilled,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss.
“Critics are bound to balk anytime a filmmaker chooses style over substance,” writes Ryland Aldrich at Twitch. “But when a director is able to execute this kind of style to such perfection, it can only be considered a home run.”
Updates, 5/23: Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir argues that “people are dismissing this movie way too easily simply because they were hoping for something different. I’m pretty sure Only God Forgives merits another viewing and more careful consideration than it’s likely to get here. Speaking personally, I found myself irritated, seduced, hypnotized and mystified by turns.”
“I’d be tempted to call Only God Forgives an unintentional laugh-riot if it weren’t so deadly dull,” writes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. It’s “driven by the hubris of monumental pretension. Visually, the film is so static that it could be presented as a PowerPoint slide show.”
“Refn has an inability to construct coherent space,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook, “and his caricatural figures stare and curse and fight without resonating as anything beyond mannequins (and I don’t mean this in an interesting way)…. The film’s trashy setting and even trashier attitude is, I suppose, an attempt at digging into something gritty and dark and exploiting it for effect. Instead, Refn’s pretension to transcend this trashiness is an exposing failure.”
Updates, 5/24: “Now this is more like it,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “Finally, a movie outrageous enough to make people stand up and boo…. All the slicing and hacking makes it obvious: Refn is scared someone wants to take away his penis…. Some of us were hoping Refn would top the flamboyant brooding of Bronson or the neon ecstasy of Drive. We got instead a work of regressive junk.”
“What does Only God Forgives add up to?” asks Tim Grierson in Paste. “Not a lot, although Vithaya Pansringarm is nasty fun as the film’s central villain who has the amazing ability to pull his sword from behind his back at any moment, even though he doesn’t ever appear to be carrying one…. Refn has always been drunk on movies, but he’s gone a bit down the rabbit hole this time.”
Jada Yuan has a pretty lively conversation with Refn for Vulture.
Update, 5/25: At the Daily Beast, Robert Porton finds it “tempting to accuse Refn of proffering stale clichés about the ‘mysterious East’ by choosing the seedier neighborhoods of Bangkok as the backdrop of this misfire. But, as Kong Rithdee, the chief film critic for the Bangkok Post, observed in an email, although it’s true that ‘Only God Forgives depicts Bangkok as an Orientalist fantasy,’ the ‘clichés are pushed to such a delirious level,’ that they can’t even be taken seriously.”
Update, 5/26: Halfway through Film Comment‘s second Cannes roundtable, Only God Forgives comes up. Todd McCarthy: “It’s just a big wank frankly.” Jonathan Romney: “It does seem now that there’s a group of filmmakers, and Gaspar Noé is one of them, who are sort of writing fan letters to each other. Noé making films for Refn, etc. This little group of the ‘wild boys.'” Marco Grosoli sees the film as a variation on Hamlet: “It’s a guy who wants to return to his mother’s womb, which he can’t manage. He is a guy split between contemplation and action.” Alexander Horwath: “If I were Ryan Gosling I would never speak to this director again. We’re supposed to believe that Refn and Gosling are buddies, but this fistfight [at the end of the film] is not a fistfight. First he sets it up by having Gosling walk in a circle around this Thai cop and then he just gets beaten to a pulp—and then his mother tells him that he has a small dick and was never worth anything and was always a weakling. It may be a Hamlet reference but it’s the weirdest relation to the supposed star that you can have. For me it’s one of the dumbest films I have seen in my life.”
Update, 5/28: The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek recalls that “while many of my colleagues huffed and puffed in disgust or disappointment as they filtered out of the screening, I felt a strange sort of calm, a twisted sense of well-being. Only God Forgives is so un-exhilarating that it’s practically a narcotic. The violence may cause a bit of squishy discomfort as you’re watching it, but the memory of it doesn’t linger much past the last frame.”
Update, 5/31: Jessica Kiang interviews Refn for the Playlist.
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