Wednesday Round-Up: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Only God Forgives”

only god

Has there been a recent film from a major director that’s drawn a reaction quite like the tidal wave that has greeted Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives”? From boos following its debut at Cannes to an award as best film of the Sydney Film Festival, it has been a wild, crazy, gleefully violent road.

Here is a film that many have called THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE, yet also received five stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. I’d say the boos are outnumbering the cheers, but still — the praise section is not small.

The film finally opened last Friday, appearing in theaters, on pay-per-view, and on iTunes, one of the most high-profile VOD releases to date. It leaped to No. 2 on the iTunes chart, yet, says Indiewire, “[i]n 78 theaters, the film managed a $315,000 gross, averaging $4,038.” An adequate, but certainly not great, number.

Calum Marsh summed up the explosion of outrage that greeted the film over the weekend for Film.com:

“This past weekend, Nicolas Winding Refn and his blonde-haired muse returned with their latest endeavor to perplex the multiplexes, ‘Only God Forgives,’ and this time they’ve upped their game by making the oblique Thai ‘thriller’ molasses-slow and hyper-violent. It’s a combination that has already proven unbearable for the many hundreds of unsuspecting patrons who have happened to wander into — and then quickly out of — the film since Friday, at least if early reactions on social media are any indication. These experiences have been compounded by the film’s availability on VOD and iTunes, a distribution strategy which has opened the door to vast new groups of disgruntled viewers. … [I]t can’t be denied that, even with ‘Drive’ fresh in their minds, large swaths of viewers were simply not prepared for what Refn and Gosling had on offer this time around.”

(Incidentally, there are way too many interesting articles on the film and the responses it has garnered for me to catalog here.)

So why THIS movie? Why has “Only God Forgives” drawn such outrage? I think the answer is two-fold: First, the star is Ryan Gosling, an actor who has a fanbase as passionate as any young actor in filmdom. That he chose this movie — this stunningly violent, stylized, downright absurdist creation — is, I think, confounding to many of his fans. That’s probably part of what appealed to him. But he is playing a non-character; the role requires little of the actor short of getting physically pummeled. (Kristen Scott Thomas as Donatella Versace-meets-Cruella de Vil has the fun part; “fun” is perhaps the wrong word for it.)

Second, “Drive” was a film that divided audiences to a much-lesser degree, but those who loved it, LOVED it. “Only God Forgives” is NOT “Drive.” If “Drive” was meant to divide audiences, “Only God Forgives” was meant to divide, and then bludgeon.

Of course, there is another possibility: That the film itself is terrible. Whatever its quality, it may prove a game-changer for video-on-demand releases. This is an admittedly offbeat but highly visible movie with a major star, one that appeared at Cannes just two months ago. Releasing it in this way probably ensured a larger audience that it ever would have received at theaters only, so this is a win for Radius-TWC.

Note that I have not offered up my opinion yet, and with good reason: I have not decided. I rented the film from iTunes last weekend, and watched it on my iPad as a storm raged outside. Somehow, that seemed an ideal way to watch the film. Many of the scenes that may have drawn guffaws or near-vomit in a full theater seemed more effective when viewed solo. The film also did not feel as slow to me as many had said it was, perhaps another feeling lessened outside of the cinema.

But they weren’t kidding about the violence. I was particularly annoyed with a long torture sequence involving a relatively minor character. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize exactly what the point of this epic, eye-gouging sequence could be. It took me out of the movie, big-time.

Yet … I certainly did not hate “Only God Forgives.” In fact, I found almost every minute of it luridly fascinating. The look, the music (by Cliff Martinez), the utter strangeness of it all, it grabbed me. I don’t know whether or not I can say it is “good.” But I can say it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, even the films it is clearly alluding to.

I am quite certain that is exactly what Nicholas Winding Refn was hoping to hear. So for me, let’s say three stars out of four, but tomorrow, it could be two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half (or one, or four) …

The rest of our Wednesday round-up:

  • The AV Club looks at Academy Award winners that opened before fall Oscar season.
  • The strange, haunting “Possession” is a film I must watch again, and soon.
  • How great is it that Peter Bogdanovich is directing a new comedy starring Owen Wilson and produced by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach?
  • “Summer Box Office Casualties,” according to Variety.
  • Spike Lee turns to Kickstarter.
  • One of my most eagerly-awaited films still set to open this summer is “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”; here, director David Lowery discusses some of the film’s most important shots.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson and Fiona Apple dated, quite memorably, and they must have ended things on good terms: PTA has directed her latest video. 

Photo courtesy of TWC-Radius