Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Only God Forgives Review

Why do we always need someone to root for?

One of the common complaints I have read regarding the brilliant Nicolas Winding Refn film Only God Forgives is that it lacks relatable, likable characters, which is such a strange thing to perceive as a flaw. What we are witnessing is an abstract, surreal world richly bathed in neon colors and unsettling imagery. It is nightmarish, a fever dream glimpse at the criminal underworld of Bangkok. It is meant to baffle, to anger, to linger in your mind long after you are done watching. Only God Forgives isn't a film that strives to fit in any traditional, Hollywood mold, one that demands a protagonist with a heartbreaking back story that charms his way into our souls. This is a story involving revenge but not one that asks us to stand up and cheer if the vengeance is eventually realized. 

Only God Forgives doesn't have a hero. Why does it need one?

If you are watching a film like this with the intention of falling in love with the characters as a way of connecting on an emotional level, you are watching it wrong. Refn doesn't give a shit how we feel, nor should he, at least not right away. His vision is profound not because of what we see or feel on the surface but rather because of the layers we need to peel back after multiple viewings to fully appreciate just how dense the narrative is. I don't blame anyone for believing that Only God Forgives "isn't about anything" after their first viewing, it is completely understandable to feel cold about a work seemingly so distant from anything close to a beating heart, but watch it again before you admonish it for being soulless or empty. Over the course of 90 minutes, our eyes will have drowned in the color red and our minds will be racing to search for meaning. Don't give up so quickly. Trust me, it's there.

The initial unflinching wave of critical backlash towards Only God Forgives was disheartening, but not because of the general concept of them not liking the film. Any one person is completely entitled to their opinion. No, the fact that we instantly turn to a aggregate score on a website as the end all, be all to judge a films success rather than decide for ourselves is unfortunate, especially for a movie that demands patience and an open mind to be appreciated. We live in such a small, cynical world where four minutes after the final frame has left the screen an onslaught of angry tweets have already swayed public opinion to head down a negative path. It's as if we as a cinema enthused society have decided having to actually work a little in a theater is a bad thing. Perhaps instead of instantly writing off art and being in a hurry to move on, we should take a second to let the craft of an auteur sink a little deeper into our subconscious. 

Perhaps we should stop always searching for heroes, for the "good guy" to come swooping in at the last second to save the innocent. Perhaps not every story deserves to end in a parade of joy as we celebrate the righteousness of the human spirit. Perhaps sometimes the best we should expect from a person is that they are able to recognize how they have sinned and accept their punishment for such transgressions. When Julian (Ryan Gosling) stares at his hands in Only God Forgives, it isn't the dull, meaningless moment that so many have made it out to be. Refn is showing us the culprits, the tools utilized by a man with a past that haunts him.

Julian is no hero, and we don't need to like him. Only a god could ever forgive.


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