REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

ONLY poster

I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.



The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.


Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.


See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.


Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.



By the way, still staring…


It may have the strangest title of any movie you will see in theaters this year. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a British romantic comedy that doesn’t shy away from the absurdity of its title. It’s a story about faith and believing you can accomplish something regardless of how preposterous it may sound. But this isn’t another run-of-the-mill, paper-thin rom-com that we seem to get bombarded with each year. Instead, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” has charm, a lot of heart, and some really good laughs.

“Salmon” is based on a novel by British author Paul Torday. It centers around the idea of a wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) to bring salmon fishing to his homeland of Yemen. He’s a visionary who sees the project as something that would bring his people happiness while a small opposition group of hardliners see it as an attempt to westernize their country. Nonetheless he sends his representative Harriet (Emily Blunt) to meet with Britain’s foremost expert on fisheries, Fred Jones (Ewen McGregor) to test the feasibility of the project. From the start, Fred writes it off as a ludicrous idea noting everything from Yemen’s lack of water to its temperature as reasons why it won’t work. Harriet, on the other hand, is armed with answers and provides several reasons why it could work.

Still Fred wants nothing to do with the project but is soon forced to by Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s cold-hearted press secretary. She’s taking some heat over how the country is being perceived by middle eastern countries particularly due to their military presence in Afghanistan. She sees helping the salmon fishing in Yemen project as a way to manipulate headlines and make the country look good. Maxwell is a mean and abrasive character but she also provides several of the film’s bigger laughs. While she is funny, there were times where the script overplays her baseness. Fred goes to Yemen to oversee the project and is soon won over by the Sheik’s vision and passion. He also discovers a growing attracted to Harriet which complicates both of their lives even further.

For me a romantic comedy will never work without good characters. “Salmon” has good characters. Fred is basically a fishing nerd. He’s a by-the-books fellow who feels uncomfortable if he’s even close to being outside his comfort zone. His marriage to Mary (Rachael Stirling) is on it’s last leg and he has no sense of direction for his life. He’s also not your typical rom-com male lead. He’s not suave, powerful, or your standard movie beau hunk. He’s just a guy and he’s easy to sympathize with and maybe even relate to in some ways. McGregor is perfectly cast and he has no problem capturing the qualities of Fred. Even Harriet isn’t your typical character. While she is beautiful, she’s also intelligent and witty yet equally unsure of her future. She recently became involved with a soldier but their relationship is put on hold when he is deployed to Afghanistan. Both main characters feel real. They’re not over-the-top or unrelatable nor are they cardboard cutouts. I liked them both.

“Salmon” does a lot of things right. The performances are really strong throughout and the chemistry between McGregor and Blunt doesn’t have to be manipulated. The movie also doesn’t force the relationship on the main characters. I don’t want to ruin anything but lets just say you’ll know what I mean after you’ve seen the film. I also really liked the sequences that take place in Yemen. They were actually filmed in Morocco and offer their own unique beauty. Also, I found the story of faith to be very effective. The sheik is a man of faith but Fred is not. As the story progresses we see that start to change. The salmon project becomes a time of reflection and self-discovery for Fred and in some ways also for Harriet. There’s one particular scene where Fred is walking with a heavy crowd of people. The overhead shot shows him stopping, turning around, then going back against the steady flow of pedestrians. It perfectly represents the change of direction in his life, the going against the grain if you will. As a whole, the story is well done and as mentioned it features some truly funny moments. Perhaps the only issue with the story is that I did feel some of the plot directions seemed too clean-cut. A few things happen along the way that just felt a little too convenient. But that’s not a big gripe.

I love a good romantic comedy or drama but they seem so rare these days. The genre has been watered down with films that follow the same broken formulas. But “Salmon” is unique in that it actually has funny moments, it is intelligent, and it’s two main characters are easy to care about and believe in. Again, some things in the story are a little too on the nose, but they’re easy to overlook when you have so much else to like. The film looks good and the performances are superb, especially from Blunt. It’s just a solid romantic comedy and so many of the other films in this genre should take notes.