‘Only God Forgives’ Early Reviews – Is it Too Violent?

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Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives Only God Forgives Early Reviews   Is it Too Violent?

There are a lot of great-looking films all crowding for attention – and awards – at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a multitude of projects being pitched in the hope of finding a financier. Amongst the favorites to win in the main competition are Jim Jarmusch’s independent vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, François Ozon’s coming-of-age tale, Jeune et Jolie, and Steven Soderbergh’s period drama, Behind the Candelabra.

Going up against these titles and many more is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Thai boxing crime-thriller, Only God Forgives, for which the director once again teamed up with star Ryan Gosling in the pairing that made their last joint venture – Drive – a favorite of critics and audiences a like. But has Refn been able to strike gold twice? After all, Drive didn’t win hearts universally, and quite a few people were turned off by the director’s slow, idiosyncratic style and Gosling’s impenetrable stoicism.

As always, you should definitely watch the film for yourself to decide, since all of the trailers and stills for Only God Forgives have suggested that it will be a fascinating watch that should be judged on its own merits. While we wait for a more general release, however, here’s a round-up of the early critic reactions, hot off the press after the premiere this week. In short? This film will make a lot of people very happy, and a lot of people very angry (see again: Drive).

Only God Forgives Ryan Gosling Only God Forgives Early Reviews   Is it Too Violent?

A lot of the vitriol – and a fair portion of the praise – apparently stems from the fact that Refn’s film is extremely violent. There was a sense, even in the red-band trailers, that the full scope of the film’s brutality was being kept behind a curtain, and the reactions include corroborative accounts of quite a few audience members booing loudly or walking out in disgust. At least it’s better than walking out due to boredom:

Xan BrooksThe Guardian

“Only God Forgives prompts early exits and a chorus of boos. Refn’s film is bloated, corpulent and borderline repulsive – yet there’s something magnificent about it just the same… Refn’s beast is sick and corroded and all set to die.”

Peter BradshawThe Guardian

“It may not win the Palme D’Or, but it could win the Walkout D’Or, a gold trophy of a cinema-seat banged up into the upright position… Only God Forgives will, understandably, have people running for the exits, and running for the hills.”

The most common sentiment expressed is that of, “You’re either going to love this film or hate it.”

Ryland AldrichTwitch

“Boy is it going to be divisive. More art film than drama, this is an immaculately constructed production where every shot is a masterpiece. Just try to look away.”

Mark AdamsScreenDaily

“For many, it will be hard to look beyond the explicit violence and rather thinly drawn plot and characters, but there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the sheer cinematic verve, intelligence and elegance that makes Only God Forgives an immersive and brutally intriguing film.”

Sasha StoneAwards Daily

“This film, Only God Forgives, is a single layer deep. There is nothing more to it… That hardly mattered to the crowd around me. Only God Forgives was met with applause by an audience that really wanted to see something risky in the sea of safe players offered up so far at the film festival. To that end, I can see why there was so much enthusiasm by this crowd afterwards. Refn wanted to make an obtuse, word-free tribute to the slicing off of limbs — and he’s done that. What it means ultimately will likely depend on your own thirst for such an exercise.”

Ryan Gosling and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam in Only God Forgives Only God Forgives Early Reviews   Is it Too Violent?

With a few of the reviews, it’s difficult to tell whether the writer actually liked the film or not:

Robbie Collin - The Telegraph

“Only God Forgives is a beautiful disaster. Really doesn’t work in the slightest, but very happy it exists.”

Peter DebrugeVariety

“Like exploitation enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, Refn is that rare lover of bad movies who also has the chops to elevate grindhouse material to the stature of art… The trouble is, he’s in such expert command of technique (reteaming with “Bronson” d.p. Larry Smith and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez) that few will see beyond the surface.”

In some cases, though, the hate is very unambiguous:

Dave CalhounTime Out

“Style over substance doesn’t really tell the half of it: you can bathe a corpse in groovy light and dress it in an expensive suit, but in the end that rotting smell just won’t go away.”

Jeffrey WellsHollywood Elsewhere

“It’s a shit macho fantasy - hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious. I realize I sound like Rex Reed on one of his rants, but trust me, please — this is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.”

Finally, some reviewers offered a more tempered analysis:

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

“On paper, Only God Forgives is exactly the movie we might have wanted — a re-visitation to the dark, fetishistically violent world of Drive, with added local color and occasional, acid dialogue. Onscreen it’s that too: just that and no more. It makes us realize how we much we had come to subconsciously expect Refn to somehow change it up again and how silly of us that was.”

Damon WiseEmpire

“Larry Smith’s cinematography is superb, and his crisp, sometimes hallucinatory visuals are complimented by Cliff Martinez’s thrumming score, which neatly fuses Thai instruments and local ballads to create an otherworldly fusion. The story itself is spare and simple, a platform for some very extreme and inventive violence. But the curious, ethereal mood ensures that nothing is especially sadistic or shocking, rather Only God Forgives is about violence in the way that Drive was about driving.”

David Rooney – The Hollywood Reporter

“Gosling is not doing anything we haven’t seen from him before, but his sullen introspection is again perfectly attuned to the director’s sensibility, with moments of clairvoyant contemplation of his future suggesting a spiritual dimension to Julian. Pansringarm brings enough distinctive quirks to a stoical role to make him an original, morally ambiguous antagonist. And the bewitching Scott Thomas makes mesmerizing work of every minute of her screen time as a vicious screen bitch for the ages.”

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives Only God Forgives Early Reviews   Is it Too Violent?

It’s looking very unlikely that Refn will walk away from this festival with the Palme d’Or; Only God Forgives is simply too divisive and – looking objectively at all of the initial reactions – too flawed to beat out the other films in the main competition. All the same, it rankles a little to see a film criticized on the basis of being too violent – a criticism that is often found during attempts to distinguish between “high art” and “low art” or, more commonly, in the moral panics that surround violent video games or movies. As Oscar Wilde said in his preface (and defense) of The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.”

In a report that calls Only God Forgives “the biggest dud so far” and suggests that Ryan Gosling’s non-presence was due to him being afraid of “a firing squad of disappointed journos” (he’s actually busy filming his directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, in Detroit), The Toronto Star quoted the following response from Refn, when questioned about the violence in the film at a press conference:

“Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration… I approach things very much like a pornographer. It’s about what arouses me. And certain things turn me on more than other stuff, and I can’t suppress that… I have surely a fetish for violent emotion and violent images and I can’t explain where it comes from, but I believe through art, it is way to exorcise certain things in you.”

It’s understandable to be turned off by a movie simply because it it has too much in the way of blood and guts, but is it fair to call it a bad film simply because it’s difficult to watch? You can find out which side of the fence you fall on when Only God Forgives is released this summer, but in the meantime, share your thoughts on these early reactions in the comments.


Only God Forgives is out in theaters on July 19, 2013.

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  1. Can’t wait to see it! The more violent…the better!

    • Absolutley, sounds like my type of flick 2

    • You took the words right out of my mouth.

  2. Sounds interesting but i had a heard enoigh time watching the elevator ghetto stomp in drive

    • That’s because you are a wimp. Go watch a Disney movie.

      • Wow, that’s harsh. Doesn’t make you a wimp trey! Just makes you a normal person. Not everybody’s COMPLETELY desensitized yet!

      • How’s 8th grade treating you buddy?

        • Well done for being super hardcore! I love drive and horror movies in general, but that doesn’t make me superior to someone less able to stomach stuff like that. Not everybody enjoys watching somebody’s head get caved in.

          • Its not the thought of it that made me cringe it was the actual special effects it looked very real, much like american history x curb stomp

            • I was just thinking about how bad the curb stomp was. After all these years, that is still one of the worst, and best, of any violent scene.

  3. “It may not win the Palme D’Or, but it could win the Walkout D’Or”
    is one of the best lines I have read and my inclination is to
    trust the judgment of the reviewer who would write it.

    I did like Drive. In fact, it was my favorite film of that year.
    However, explicit violence is something I generally avoid.
    In Drive it was more implied save a few moments which
    would have been better avoided being less explicit.

    I am taken aback by Refn’s quote and he sounds
    like what he thinks is good for his own catharsis
    is good for everyone else as well and he is wrong.

    Refn’s approaching things very much like a pornographer
    and admitting arousal of same could not be further
    from how I would approach art or anything else.

    • Well said.

    • There is something to be said for the courage to make art that is what you get out of it and therefore close to your heart and soul and then throw it out there and see what happens. It sounds like this is what Refn does.

      I’ve never seen his movies, no, not even Drive. But to me, that’s what his quote is about.

      • I did not say that an approach different from mine is wrong.

        I said what Refn thinks is good for him to “exorcise certain things in you”
        is something he implies is good for everyone else is wrong and it is.

        • Given that the sentence admits to certain predilections of his own (“I have”), I read the you as essentially an editorial you but still more personal as if he is really speaking about himself and not others.

          To me, he were really saying that he uses art as a way to exorcise these things in himself and that others perhaps use art the same way. In psychology, what he is describing is sublimation, and it was (still is depending on the situation) considered a healthy way to deal with those issues.

          It’s always interesting to see how different people read/hear the same words and hear completely different things, isn’t it?

          • I do agree that art is an exorcism of sorts so there I agree with Refn.
            I would never assume my approach was suitable for anyone else though.

      • So if a man decides to make sculptures with his feces, I can’t call it sh*t because he deems it art?

        • You could call it s**t art.

          • lmao.

    • Storytelling is the ultimate narcissism. Making storytellers…

      • Maybe that is true though few writers would admit to it.
        I do believe you have to write for yourself first but the
        danger lies in ultimately writing only about yourself.

        • As a writer, I agree.

          • It is something to always be mindful of.

            Great to see you back, Jason, not that
            you have been away in a strict sense.
            Writing does have its demand of time.

            • Right back at ya, my friend.

      • I don’t agree Kofi…I love to write and I’m the farthest from a narcissist. If anything, I can be too self deprecating, and whenever I simply write for myself, the character that would be most be described as me dies at the end. But that’s not the point; while my stories may come from my own imagination, the messages and core concepts I feel that I can include in them come from my own experiences, and I hope the people who read them (re: the audience) can relate and take something away from that. Also, i love to hear it when people say, “Wow that’s a good movie/book or play” and I’ve always dreamed of being that author whose book someone reads until its worn down because it’s just that good. So in a way, i write more for the people. Refn’s way…that’s his way I guess. I don’t agree with it, because as a director I would approach my craft as a creative member of the audience who wants bring something new, different, good, and most importantly, something people will watch to the table. And they would appreciate the fact that I invested myself to make it so good. And I’m not talking about Micheal Bay’s cramming explosions down your throat either, since people love action. I’m talking about a strong story, good action (if it’s called for) good acting, and an overall great film experience. Like Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction,or the Dark Knight I’d want to make a movie that’s loved but it has a style all on its own, and people will watch it again and again.
        And besides, if I were a narcissist, I would contemplate my demise (by my own hand) every other night. I typically agree with you Kofi, but not this time.

        • Narcissism and deprecation both stem from “self” issues and esteem. I think the actual definition of narcissism mentions something about the subject being unaware of a deficit in self-esteem. I won’t speak for Kofi but I can acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of narcissism in every creative outlet, be it writing, acting, dancing, singing, directing, etc. Some keep it in check, others never make that effort. I had an art professor in college who told me every artist puts a piece of themselves in their portraiture. Those who are aware of it tend to box themselves into a tighter creative window as opposed to those who never recognize it.

          As for writing for one’s self or one’s audience, the only work I’ve completed that displeased me was the one I wrote for someone other than myself. Maybe that’s arrogant but, at the end of the day, we have to meet our own approval before we can live up to anyone else’s. If it wasn’t about approval or even accolades, there’d be no desire to become published or to release a movie or play in a band. We’d simply create and store our work in a box under the bed or in the back of the closet–and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all about balance and what works for you. Refn has made it clear with his statements what motivates him to create and, clearly, he’s getting what he wanted. :)

          • The only standards of certainty in writing are your own. What you write and how you write, what you want to say and how you say it, is guided best by you and only you. I think of writing like Michelangelo thought of sculpting. The sculpture is already there hidden within the stone and the carving is the uncovering of it.

            The story, the characters, and the story telling are hidden within you and you must look inward to draw them out in the process of writing. This is necessarily a solitary singular experience and no one but you can search the recesses of your mind and heart, and sometimes your soul, to uncover all you want to say and say it the way you want to say it.

            Once you have satisfied yourself, once your standards have been met, once you have judged your own work you can detach and begin to ask yourself how your work might connect with others in ways it has already connected with you. Personally, whatever I write, I want the pursuit of truth to be a driving force behind where I am headed forming a framework underlying the writing which can resonate with readers who can sense that same truth. It is there the connection is made. In this sense writing for myself becomes the best way of writing for the audience.

    • The operative phrase in your comment being “how I would approach art”. You’ll be surprised how many people live violence vicariously through film. And I’m sure its not all redundant violence, there’s just more of it. We all inherently possess the primal inclination for savagery. We just choose to suppress it because we live in a civilization. Any artist who says he doesn’t create art for his own catharsis is a liar. “Vice and Virtue are to the artist materials for art.” Oscar Wilde

  4. people shocked by violence from Refn???? Hellooooo that’s what he does -Bronson & Drive are the best!!!!!!!!! MOvies are soo boring now – tg there are still crazy directors like him1111111

  5. I became a Fan of this Director after Drive. It seems with this movie he wanted to surpass himself or maybe bring a different flavor to the audience or even try to push the Limit a little. Just for that He has an A for effort and really caught my curiosity. I am looking forward to it and I even think Refn is The new Quentin Tarantino and just like Scorcese/Robert de Niro/Dicaprio, he found his mate in Ryan Goslin. :)

  6. I too, became a fan of Refn’s after the masterpiece that was Drive. I’m excited to see this film, and I’m also excited that somebody, somewhere, is making films that make people FEEL something, ANYTHING. I appreciate Refn’s vision and directorial style, coupled with Goslings visceral screen presence. Now………if we can just somehow have Refn’s direct the Justice League, and have Gosling play a superhero in it, or is this reaching for the stars???

  7. “Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration… I approach things very much like a pornographer. It’s about what arouses me. And certain things turn me on more than other stuff, and I can’t suppress that… I have surely a fetish for violent emotion and violent images and I can’t explain where it comes from, but I believe through art, it is way to exorcise certain things in you.”
    That’s probably the most messed up comment I’v ever read from a filmmaker. Really… the guy gets hard-ons from seeing people’s heads bashed in? That’s sick.

    I didn’t like Drive at all. It was excruciatingly boring, overly violent, the story was thin and uninteresting and the characters were hardly what I’d call engaging or interesting either (to me, the only good part of the movie was Gosling’s performance)

    Reading these reviews, it sounds like my opinion of ‘Drive’ isn’t going to be too far off from this one either, when I eventually watch it.

  8. There are the kind of negative reviews that make you think “Yeah, I’ll be skipping this”…And then there are the kind that make you want to see it all the more. This is a case of the latter. Can’t wait.

    • I agree. I’ve not seen a Refn film, but this review makes me want to go see it just to see how I will react to it, just to see a film that is both beautiful and horrible at the same time.

  9. Refn makes films not movies and, sadly, we live in a time of movies. I saw Drive and thought it was interesting though not extraordinary. Yes, it was refreshing for its time and that makes it a little more special. This one I would watch merely for the cinematography.

  10. “…the director’s slow, idiosyncratic style and Gosling’s impenetrable stoicism.”

    This is the essence of DRIVE and the apparent hallmark of Refn.

    At a time when it’s fashionable for reviewers to reject “extremes” –sex, violence, political conspiracies, whatever– ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a satellite issue, particularly in the aftermat of KILL BILL (vol. 1) and its offsprings popping from the womb of every cinematic immitator.

    Refn’s new film is being described as a “single layer deep”. Make sense for a movie coming from a director who filters art through a pornographic cypher; like porn, it can be boring yet you can’t take your eyes off it.

  11. Ultra violence as art and/or entertainment? Welcome to ancient Rome. Thanks but no thanks. Tasteless all the way.

  12. All of Refn’s movies are pretty violent, it sounds more of what he does best. Violent brooding characters, simple story, and beautiful cinematography. If he gives me these things I imagine I will like the movie a lot. I also get the feeling that Refn, like Herman Melville, is an artist that will not be appreciated in his time.

    • jokes on you, the 10 minutes you spent writing that will be minutes you never get back. Every one has an opinion but cant make movies.

    • Every artist needs discipline either internally or externally imposed.
      Creativity for creativity’s sake can lead to self-indulgence and
      a loss in perspective which in the end is self-defeating.

      The old Hollywood studio system could sometimes
      provide that necessary restraint which when it
      worked resulted in some of the greatest work
      by artist who might not have achieved it
      otherwise if left to their own designs.

  13. American moviegoers are scared of violence, seriously grow some f**king balls.

  14. The worse the review was the more I want to see it.

  15. i cant wait, this guy is a visionary, these critics could use some real ife violence in their lives. Refn creates art, they create articles bums keep near their bush outhouse.

  16. I haven’t seen Drive, but I did catch Valhalla Rising and I get the impression that Refn has a certain style that is not Hollywood friendly. And from what I have seen of Thai Kickboxing it is not exactly figure skating, so it being bloody is not a shock.

  17. The thing about these movies people really don’t understand is that they are art. Not movies but art, well technically they are movies but they have a more appealing aspect to them as say a pair of opal earrings. Is 4 inches hard small? Or is it average?

  18. This film sounds over violent, which isn’t a problem for me, but what some reviews suggest it sounds as if it is too slow and the pace is off-beat. I wasn’t a fan of Bronson either, but I understood the point of making it, the insanity of living in prison when you’re ultra-violent. Only God Forgives looks brilliantly shot and crazy violent and I will hope only the best for it, although I’m not gonna get my hopes up TOO high. I’ll still be there when it opens, let’s just say that.

  19. Hmmm, I am torn. Although I think I would like a crazy violent/action movie I also would like some sort of storyline. I saw Drive and although the action was great, the storyline was weak and therefore made it a boring film for me. I am afraid of this movie being the same. We shall see though. I hope I am wrong because I really liked where this film was heading at the beginning.

  20. Constant OTT brutality is a bit rubbish. Dredd was pretty silly when it came to violence, but the bit that really stuck in my mind was when Dredd punched a guy in the throat so hard, his neck visibly caved in slightly. It was kind of shocking, which is odd considering that it’s a film about shooting the crap out of everything.

    Django Unchained, on the other hand, was more ridiculous and the only scenes that made me flinch were the ones showing the (depressingly realistic) treatment of slaves. A bit of the old ultra-violence only really cuts deep (and doesn’t seem overly gratuitous) if it’s a break from the established norm of the film. Otherwise, it does come across as a cheap method to make the film ‘controversial’ and generate interest.

  21. I’ve seen the movie yesterday and I would watch it again. It has very disturbing scenes and, somewhat disturbing dialogues, which makes watching it sometimes very uncomfortable, but yet you can’t watch away. The violence is, although, still being a movie, realistic and this probably puts people more off than expendables for example. If you’ve seen Drive and thought it was already too violent, don’t go watch this movie. It is just going to put you off. The storyline is pretty thin, but the cinematic experience is making up for it. Its beautifully shot, and the music fits perfectly.

  22. People judge without thinking i would rather watch something more close to reality than something that may be more of a dream than whats real the media is trying to sell a point of view these days than actually showing the masses how real life is x rated it is uber nc17 violent and once in a while i wanna se more of the truth or as close as your going to get im an adult and its not like the kids are going to watch it with me

  23. Having just watched this I can say it was well shot, the soundtrack was gppd as was the camera work. That’s about as nice as I can be about it. The movie lacks structure, characterization is almost non existent. The movie is a string of well shot visuals, there’s no pacing and the atmosphere of movie is entirely morose.

    The violence did little to drive the story, in fact it seemed only put in for shock.

    I’d give it a miss.

    • Watched it last night and totally agree. I was so disappointed and actually apologized to my wife for recommending that we watch it. The trailers built everything up to expect a great fight and there was nothing. Instead of saying, “Wanna fight?”, Gosling should have just said, “Wanna kick my a$$?”

  24. I just finished watching this movie and immediately felt like I need to take a shower and wash away the slim, the movie not only left me feeling dirty and ashamed to have wasted 1:30 minutes of my time. There is not one character in the movie that you can like or feel apathy for because they are all from the dirty underbelly of society that most people would do everything possible to avoid. Even the police officer in the film is nothing but a serial killer with a sword. As far as Gosling, he does not act in this movie, because he spends all of his time posing in scenes attempting to be cool or morose. Save yourself the money and the time and avoid this digital disaster.

  25. Just saw it, and it’s a great movie. Slow, deliberate and violently beautiful. Don’t watch it if you can’t be patient with the pace.

  26. Many reviews I’ve read for this film state that there’s too much violence and not enough story, and acting. At the same time it’s being called an “art film” and “amazing to look at”. That is sometimes the whole point of an art house film. The director was most likely trying to evoke emotion from brutality and beautiful visuals in unison, moreover acting. This violence is not campy, its gritty and realistic; and the movie is bathed in neon glow (becoming a Refn signature(which I love, as a child of the 80′s)). That combined with the asian flourishes and evil characters, make this film something special and good or bad does evoke plenty of emotion. Something rare in most of today’s movies.