God Forgives… Audiences Don’t: Refn’s Newest Flick Far Too Good to Be Taking This Much Flak

Hey girl... this movie is a lot better than you think.
Hey girl… this movie is a lot better than you think.

Drive, the 2011 fluorescent techno gangster mindfudge was so good, in my opinion, that it supplants all other occurrences in my generation. As the baby boomers asked, “Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” the Millennials will prod, “When did you first see Drive? Bro? Brah… Gosling, amirite?”

Cut to 2013:

Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish Scorcese, and Ryan Gosling, the baby-faced superstar, the director and star of Drive, respectively, have reteamed to bring us the incredibly dark Only God Forgives.

The film is a relatively simple revenge story unfolding on the gritty streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Gosling plays a small-time gangster whose confusing relationship with his mother is thrust into the light of day by the murder of his brother.

Oh, and there’s a karaoke-singing Thai cop god-figure who chops people’s arms off.

The movie is weird, but visually and aurally challenging. It’s unpleasant, but constantly enthralling. There probably isn’t one sympathetic character in the whole movie, which can be challenging.

At Cannes, where the film premiered in May, people reportedly walked out of the theater, disgusted. It also received a standing ovation and was nominated for the top prize, the Palm d’Or. A month later it won the grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival.  Meanwhile it’s barely appeared in theaters in the states, and was quietly in and out of the Darkside a couple of weeks ago. It’s still available on iTunes and other online video-on-demand outlets. It’s running a miserable 38% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes—for some reason, people don’t like it.

It’s a shame, because it’s a fantastic film.

Refn burst on the scene with the excellent Pusher trilogy and has been making violent, off-color, hallucinogenic genre-benders for almost 20 years. He’s at his best here, working with a minimalist brush—he squeezes so much out of so little. There’s very little dialogue, very few twists, but a lot of excellent storytelling and visual excellence.

Gosling isn’t quite as enthralling this time as he was in Drive, and he certainly isn’t as likable. This worked greatly against the movie. Gosling’s fans are a rabid and dedicated bunch, and without their seal of approval, it might as well have been Alex Trebek in the lead role. Honestly I think the success of Drive is causing this film to be severely underrated in more departments than just Gosling’s smoldering.

There’s also a fair amount of pretty graphic violence, but I believe the overall gnarliness of this violence has been overblown. To hear media reports, people were vomiting in the aisles and passing out at Cannes. I’m skeptical.

The bottom line is that this film is an absolute gem and its brief appearance at the Darkside actually made Corvallis one of a handful of cities even showing it. We didn’t exactly turn out in throngs. We blew it on this one.

By Ygal Kaufman