In defense of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives’

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The critical reactions that accompanied Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-violent follow-up to his L.A set neo-noir hit Drive has been very, err, “colorful” to say the least. The reactions ranged from amusing to downright loathsome.  Some called it bland while others called it boring. American audiences even went far as to compare the film to Showgirls and Battlefield Earth whereas Indian audiences gleefully compared it to a recent debacle called Aag. Unbelievable! I mean, if you compare the quality of the aforementioned films and a film like  Only God Forgives, they are miles apart. One critic in his review said, “God may forgive, but the audience won’t”. I have to admit, I got a chuckle out of that one. Majority of the critics complained of the lack of dialogues and the wooden expressions of the lead characters.

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Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a gangster operating out of a shady boxing club in Bangkok. When his brother is killed by a police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) for murdering a prostitute, Julian’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) orders him to avenge his death. Julian is shown as a conflicted character who seems to be struggling with some kind of guilt. Julian, his mother and Chang are some of the most intriguing characters I’ve come across in cinema. This is like one of those stories that take place in an alternate reality; not on earth. It’s laden with powerful symbolic imagery, a haunting background score and characters that seem almost supernatural. It almost plays like a surreal nightmare that is at times beautiful to look at and like something straight out of a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick film. Some scenes are inter-cut between others to allude to something and their meanings left deliberately vague. But those who have been paying close attention right from the opening scene won’t find it hard to figure out everything.

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So what did people really expect with this one? A vast majority of expected it to be like another Drive but got something else. I can understand the reactions from those who hated it because they expected a full-blown mainstream entertainer but ended up watching the wrong film, but I’m a little curious about the reactions of those serious film buffs who said things like, “Ryan Gosling and other characters stare into blank spaces and walls for a major part of the film” or “Gosling spends most of the time looking at his hands”.  So, I have a question: If the characters in a Bergman or a Tarkovsky or a Malick film spend most of their time staring into blank spaces and walls, it’s considered “deep” but when Nicolas Winding Refn or Ryan Gosling attempts it, it automatically becomes pretentious, stupid and ridiculous? I can already sense the questions forming inside the heads of some of the readers – “Is this guy serious?” I didn’t find Refn’s style here pretentious at all.

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I think this is one of the least pretentious films I’ve come across. I have a feeling that 20 or 30 years down the line, it’s going to achieve the same cult status as say, Blade Runner, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Remember the time when these films were booed at the time of their release? I am not trying to persuade anybody or I am not trying to go against the grain here or call the people who hated this film, morons. But I do have a problem with those who compare it to the inane blockbusters that come out today. These people expect everything to be spoon-fed to them and can’t stand the thought of sitting through anything that even remotely challenges them. I would love to write a lengthy analysis here but I don’t intend to, as that would defeat the purpose of what Refn was trying to accomplish. However, I am not against discussing it privately with those who are interested.

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2 comments

  1. Nice post in defense of a misunderstood film-maker. Refn in a interview said “I make films that arouse me”. So, naturally many might not like or get his shots which itself is designed as a grand event. I haven’t seen “Fear X”, but except that I cherish all his works. I think except for “Drive” and “Pusher Trilogy”, Refn’s works were booed at film festivals. The festival director of TIFF is said to have sent back his “Bronson” movie saying that it is one of the worst films he had ever seen. Highly divisive works like that of Refn’s may live for decades than those making manipulative award-snatchers. I also constantly argue with my friends who compare Refn’s movies with the traditional cinema.

    Liked by 1 person

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