Drive Angrier: Only God Forgives

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I’ve been to see a spate of newer movies recently and keep meaning to write something about them.

Most recently I saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which was an interesting, challenging kind of crime film.

I should preface my review by confessing I am a huge fan of Winding Refn’s films.  I keep telling people to watch his Pusher films and people keep ignoring me, but they are a staggeringly accomplished trilogy of gangster films.  His Valhalla Rising is an underrated, brutal piece of brilliance.  And yes, I loved Drive.

Some of my friends are stuck on its similarity to Walter Hill’s The Driver, but the nameless getaway driver in both films can be traced back to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.  Beyond this similarity, the two films are quite different and have a different kind of feel.

Drive is based on the novella by James Sallis and that’s really the driving influence on the film.  I read the book a couple of months ago and wasn’t impressed.  I thought the film was better and that Winding Refn did a good job of stripping down the plot for the most part.

Apart from Carey Mulligan, I loved everybody in the cast and enjoyed each performance.  The cast was great, but what elevates Drive is the sheer style of it.  It oozes a combination of eighties nostalgia and neo noir.  The shots, the soundtrack, the brooding quietness of Ryan Gosling’s character, Driver.  The cars, his scorpion jacket, his toothpick.  It’s all uber cool.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about Drive, it’s about Only God Forgives.  The only reason I have chosen to dwell on Drive is because it sets a certain kind of expectation.  Only God Forgives has been sold in its trailer the same way as Drive; as an ultra smooth, stylish follow up with a brooding Ryan Gosling in the lead.  I went into the cinema expecting a similar kind of film, albeit transplanted to Thailand.

Once again, Winding Refn provides a beautifully shot, stylish crime film.  There are the moments of extreme violence that characterise his films (perhaps notched up a level), plus it’s slow and understated once again.  Even more so than in Drive, the dialogue is functional and the interaction between characters kept minimal.

Unfortunately, for me, this was a problem.  It is hard to care about characters when you can only judge them on their actions; even more so when those actions are confusing and motivated by emotions which are not properly expressed.  Drive was a virtual fairytale in terms of storytelling and so managed to avoid this issue, but too much is left unsaid in Only God Forgives.  As a viewer you are constantly forced to interpret actions based on a very limited amount of information.  This is especially the case with Ryan Gosling’s character, Julian, and his relationship with his family.  There are too many unanswered questions to create a genuine sense of drama.  You can’t empathise with complex characters if they’re not allowed to fully express themselves.  As a result, Only God Forgives felt a bit empty for me.

In many ways Ryan Gosling plays a supporting character, but somehow brought to the fore; I found that slightly confusing.  On the one hand, I liked the action sequences and wanted more fighting, because these scenes were handled and choreographed so well.  On the other hand, the film was overly ambitious and the action felt out of place as a result.  The violence seemed to be for its own sake and detracted from the moral message.  Overall, not altogether bad, but not quite living up to its potential either.

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