If you read my review of 'Drive,' then you know that I'm amongst those who gush over Nicolas Winding Refn's speedy criminal love story. Over two years old now, it's still one of my favorite contemporary films. With an affinity for 'Drive,' it's a shame that I couldn't possibly have more mixed emotions over his latest film, 'Only God Forgives.'
When Refn received financing for 'Drive,' part of his deal was that he had to produce two movies. Basically, he made a two-for-one deal. With both projects, he has made genre films that carry a unique characteristic – the key element to said genre is hardly present. 'Drive' is a car-based movie that only contains a few minutes of actual car chases. 'Only God Forgives' is a martial arts movie that only contains a few minutes of martial arts.
Like 'Drive,' there's hardly any dialog in 'Only God Forgives.' Ryan Gosling reunites with Refn to star as Julian, an uprooted American living in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). The two of them run the Thailand side of their mother's international drug business, but older brother Billy is the head of their operations. Julian is the family misfit. Instead of being full-time in the family business, he focuses his efforts on his personal Bangkok business – an American boxing gym.
If you've seen the trailer for 'Only God Forgives,' then you know what an awful person Billy and Julian's mother is. As we quickly learn, Billy takes after their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). After orchestrating a drug deal in the film's opening scene, we follow him on a bender through the filthy city streets looking for a teenage prostitute. Becoming more agitated and hostile as he unsuccessfully pursues underage sex, he commits an unthinkable act on a prostitute. Yes, this content is very dark, but none of the grizzly acts are shown on-screen – thank heaven. When the police catch up with Billy, the powerful head of the local police, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), allows the father of the prostitute to do whatever he wants to Billy. Needless to say, Billy ends up dead.
When the cold and cruel Crystal catches wind of her favored son's death, she hops on the first flight to Bangkok to retrieve the body. She would have come and gone if it wasn't for Julian being the family's proverbial and respective "black sheep." Her first order on Thai soil is for Julian to kill the man who murdered Billy, but when Julian finds the prostitute's father, he takes mercy on the man. After all, the old man was just avenging his dead daughter, right? In Julian's mind, Billy had it coming – and that is not okay with Crystal, who ignorantly begins a battle with the devil himself – Chang.
As I've described it, 'Only God Forgives' doesn't sound half bad, does it? From the director of 'Drive,' it sure doesn't sound like a two-and-a-half star film, right? Many of elements that made 'Drive' a success are present, but it's missing the characters the make you give a damn and a structure that keeps you reeled in and entertained.
I love the aesthetic of 'Drive.' It's perfect. And 'Only God Forgives' contains an equally brilliant feel. The unique cinematography and Cliff Martinez' great score work together to create another fantastic aesthetic. Visually, 'Only God Forgives' is appealing. It's eye candy. The characters of 'Drive' made you want to keep watching. You rooted for the anti-hero and mourned the loss of good people. You cheered for love to prevail and for the evil to receive their comeuppance. With 'Only God Forgives,' there is only one good character – Julian – but you know so little about him that you never form a bond with him. Even the contrast of having him surrounded by entirely unlikeable characters couldn't make me care for him, his well-being or his situation in life. Instead of rooting for this anti-hero to win, I wanted to see his nasty mother, disgusting brother, and the sick-and-twisted police chief get what's coming to them.
As I described it, the plot seems fluid and easy enough to follow, but that's only because I didn't explain much about Julian's part of this story. Julian's role in this narrative isn't fleshed out. Truthfully, I couldn't even follow some of his scenes. A few of them play out much like inexplicable ramblings from a Richard Kelly screenplay. Sometimes we're shown two versions of a scene. I can't say for sure, but one might be what Julian sees in his meditative mind and the other might be reality. Which is real? I can't say for sure. And only making things more confusing, he might also have a sixth sense or premonition. This is the perspective that I've walked away with. You can watch the film and come up with your own conclusions.
After premiering at the same prestigious international film festival that once awarded Refn as the Best Director for 'Drive,' 'Only God Forgives' received mostly negative buzz. My love of 'Drive' made me turn a naïve eye to the haters. I popped in 'Only God Forgives' with expectations of it being as good as 'Drive.' Sadly, that was not the case. But on the upside, I didn't hate it. In fact, the moment the credits began rolling, I had to sit back and really put some thought into it before I could determine whether I liked it or not. For me, it's right there in the middle. 'Only God Forgives' has some brilliant elements, but it also has some very bad ones. They balance out to make it completely average. The rewatchability for a film like this is very low, but I'll definitely revisit it again some time in the future just to see what else I can pull from it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay has placed 'Only God Forgives' on a Region A BD-50 in single-disc blue Elite keepcase. Included is a slip that instructs how to obtain two free song downloads from Cliff Martinez's score. The songs include track three, "Chang and Sword," and track 18, "Wanna Fight – Bonus Edition." Neither tracks are amongst the noteworthy ones from the film. The back side of this download slip carries an advertisement for the upcoming Blu-ray release of 'Lovelace.' Upon inserting the disc, you're forced to watch an Anchor Bay and Weinstein Company vanity reel, after which a skippable trailer plays for last year's 'Pusher' remake. Once through, you'll get to the film's glorious main menu composed of stunning clips and great scoring.
'Only God Forgives' hits Blu-ray with a perfect 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's constantly clear, crisp and wildly colorful.
There are three main aspects of the video quality that shine brightly. Mrs. Hickman - who's pretty much a layman when it comes to this stuff - even praised the first one. As the main menu kicked off with clips of the film, she said, "Check out the fantastic colors." And she was right. Although the palette may consist of only three main colors, they're drop-dead gorgeous. Each of the three main family characters has his/her own color. Julian's is red, Billy's is blue, and Crystal's is green. I don't know that I've seen a scheme as vibrant and beautiful as this. At times, depending on the setting and obviously a directorial decision, the colors will dive into a deep over-saturation that causes a stunning glowing effect.
The second aspect is the effect of wonderful blacks. Mostly set at night, there are countless instances of their beauty. The shadows in the film are meant to be like an abyss. You're never supposed to see what lurks within them, which causes great tension and actually functions as one of Julian's fears. Shadows consume whatever lies within them. If 50 percent of Gosling's face is lit, the other 50 percent isn't at all visible. The only thing that will peer through the shadowed half is the twinkle of light reflecting off his eye. Combined with a few other iconic uses of lighting, this design decision gives the film a certain "film noir" feel that's fitting and cool.
And the third aspect is the high level of detail. There's not a single shot in 'Only God Forgives' that isn't sharp. Be it Julian hanging around a shady abandoned marketplace with miniscule flies and gnats peppering the air or the texture of his girlfriend's fancy dress - fine details function as pleasant eye candy.
Without a trace of noise, black crush, aliasing, bands or artifacts, 'Only God Forgives' carries an absolutely flawless video quality.
'Only God Forgives' carries a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's just as impressive, perfect and fitting as the Blu-ray's video quality.
Cliff Martinez's score in 'Drive' was good, but it's his 'Only God Forgives' score that really raised my eyebrows. Lucky for us, the lossless audio mix allows his score to shine. From the opening credits sequence, the music is dynamically spread; it's loud and punchy; it fills the air and leaves no gaps between channels. I cannot think of another Blu-ray whose music mix is stronger than this.
Sounds effects are very well placed. Large environments - like Julian's gym - feature effects that place you within the settings. If a boxing match is going on, you're located in the middle of the crowd. If the gym is completely empty, there are sounds of hard-soled shoes clacking through the echoey warehouse as our characters pass through. City streets ring with passing cars and motorcycles, all of which seamlessly image around the space. Weapon effects are quite impressive. Gunshots carry an impacting loud bang. If Chang draws his short blade from the sheath behind his back, the sound of steel sliding through it gives chills of the impending doom to be caused by its swipe.
Just like the video quality, I cannot think of an aspect of the audio that could have been done better.
From Nicolas Winding Refn, if you're expecting another film that matches up with 'Drive,' prepare yourself for disappointment. 'Only God Forgives' may have the strong filmmaking qualities that we wish every film carried, but the story itself is messy and missing several key elements that connect us to the characters and story. The exquisite style compensates for the narrative flaws, but not enough to satisfy. Even the flawless audio/video qualities and a fantastic director's commentary can't save 'Only God Forgives.' I'm sure that I'll revisit this later down the road. I don't expect to love it with repeat viewings, but I hope to find more redeeming qualities while admiring the fantastic visuals, the unique score, and the unforgettable aesthetic. Personally, I wouldn't pay full price for 'Only God Forgives,' so I recommend it only as a rental.