Criticized for its graphic violence and scarce plot, Only God Forgives is among Nicolas Winding Refn’s most negatively received films. Coming off the heels of its lauded predecessor, Drive, many consider the film to be a disappointing attempt at recreating magic. It may not have the same charm as its older brother, but Only God Forgives crafts a world just as immersive and perhaps even more beautiful.
It’s a different kind of beautiful, though. Both films reek of sultry atmosphere with their heavily stylized visuals and carefully crafted soundtracks, but Only God Forgives portrays a setting far less inviting. It’s a destitute, brutal, and disgusting world filled with unlikable characters. It moves at a glacial pace, forcing its viewers through every last brooding minute. It’s far less fun to watch than Drive, but that’s not what matters. It’s an unforgiving window into an ugly piece of life, but it’s effective nonetheless thanks to its slow-burning emotional impact, stifling atmosphere, and back-alley texture. A good film is not necessarily fun. A good film uses the cinematic medium to distill a facet of the human experience down to its essential form. Some of these facets are bound to be unpleasant, as the film demonstrates, but it’s difficult to deny that Refn’s showcase of human squalor does exactly what it sets out to do.