I'm sure I'll make a lot of enemies with this post, since I know a lot of people -- some of whom I have great respect for -- who think that Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 film Drive is a neo-classic and a cinematic masterpiece. And to be clear, I don't hate Drive. I just think that aside from it's dynamite opening scene and its accomplished visuals, Drive is tremendously overrated -- a cipher of a film that people seem to have assigned meaning and relevance that I'm not convinced exists in the film.
Refn's latest film Only God Forgives was nominated for the Palm d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, even though it was famously booed by the reliably rowdy Cannes audience. What I find most interesting is that, in my opinion, Only God Forgives shares many of the aspects I disliked in Drive, for which Refn won the director's prize at Cannes just two years earlier. But what was celebrated (or at least forgiven) in 2011 is now poison in 2013, with Only God Forgives being savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. That's why I'm very curious to hear what fans of Drive think of Only God Forgives. Is Only God Forgives really that much worse, or was Drive never that great in the first place? Watch my ReThink Review of Only God Forgives below (transcript following).
In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn's film Drive was released, a so-called arthouse action movie that struck a chord with critics (earning a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), as well as audiences, creating a buzz that finally launched Ryan Gosling's simmering career into superstardom. It seemed like nearly everyone was psyched about Drive -- that is, except for a few people like me. Other than Drive's opening scene, which really might be one of the greatest and smartest car chases of all time, and the film's cool 80s-synth-inspired soundtrack, I had major problems with Drive, problems which have persisted into Refn's latest film with Gosling, Only God Forgives. But by the looks of things, it seems like more people are starting to notice them.
Gosling plays Julian, another nearly silent, largely unemotive small-time crook on the edge of the criminal underworld, much like Gosling's nameless character in Drive. Julian and his brother Billy (played by Tom Burke) run a kickboxing gym in Bangkok that's a front to move drugs. However, Billy is a horrible, violent scumbag who gets beaten to death by the father of a teenage prostitute whom he raped and murdered.
Julian and Billy's mother and criminal boss Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to bring Billy's body back to the States. But it's soon obvious where Billy got his awfulness from, since Crystal is perhaps the most hate-filled, cartoonishly evil mom in film history, swearing constantly, making sexual insinuations towards her son, and insulting everyone else in the most vulgar ways possible. She implores Julian to kill Billy's murderer, but Julian refuses when he learns that the real man responsible for Billy's death is Lieutenant Chang, a mysterious policeman (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) with an obsession for justice who handles matters with a samurai sword. Crystal's attempts to go around Julian to get to Chang begin a chain reaction of increasingly gory violence.
The similarities between Only God Forgives and Drive start with its maddeningly slow pace, which feels like a lazy attempt to pad a 30-page script into a feature-length film by having characters walk, talk, and turn REALLY slowly, stare at each other way too long, and wait at least five seconds for no reason before delivering any piece of dialogue. When people do speak, it's so slow, stilted, and artificial that there's hardly a single sentence of realistic dialogue in the entire film. And in the case of Crystal, her lines are so offensive that Thomas said that she could barely bring herself to say them. But they're hardly clever, like the work of a seventh grader who thinks being "edgy" means spewing every nasty phrase he can think of, even if doing so makes no sense story- or character-wise.
And speaking of nasty, both films display Refn's affection for sudden, graphic violence, with dozens of scenes full of severed limbs, gushing blood, bullet-riddled bodies, and skewered flesh. But instead of feeling gritty, harsh, and realistic, as it sometimes did in Drive, in Only God Forgives it mostly feels like a cheap attempt to goose the film's otherwise glacial pace. And in a world where we're all too exposed to the heartbreaking results of real-life violence, the cruelty in Only God Forgives is hardly worth putting yourself through if it's only function is to keep the audience awake. The result is a movie that feels like it was made by a fan of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Eli Roth who was then dosed with heavy sedatives.
The saturated color palette, the slow camera moves, the stone-faced, silent hero bursting into sudden and uncharacteristic aggression -- we've seen all this before. But what critics supposedly loved, or at least tolerated, in Drive they're now howling about in Only God Forgives, which earned just 34% on Rotten Tomatoes. While this film is truly an unpleasant ordeal that feels way longer than its 90 minutes, I'd like to challenge fans of Drive to see Only God Forgives, then explain why Drive is such a superior film despite sharing so much of the same DNA. But as much as I'd like to prove that Drive is overrated, anyone who decides not to see Only God Forgives has my full support.