When “Drive” swept across North American theaters in late 2011, a wave of confusion quickly followed: people sold by its marketing campaign on the prospect of a high-octane thrill ride starring pretty-boy Ryan Gosling were baffled to find a contemplative, slow-burn anti-genre film with arthouse aspirations. After two acts of brooding, blood finally poured and skulls were duly crushed, but not as badly as the hopes of mainstream movie fans who’d assumed they’d paid to see an 80s-infused take on “Fast Five”, with which it turned out “Drive” had literally nothing in common except the fact that the cars still had four wheels. I’ll never forget the rapidly dwindling audience I sat with for its sold-out theatrical premiere, whose groans of boredom and dissatisfaction were only briefly drowned out when, as Gosling sat bleeding and motionless in his car at the end of the film, a man in the front row stood up and yelled “DO SOMETHING!” as if he could will the actor to flinch.
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. For the edification of the masses we’ve gone to the trouble of rounding up some of the more incisive audience reviews and commentary, which should serve as a compelling compendium of public criticism. Film.com's critic didn't care for the film, but portions of the viewing public put his vitriol to shame. As we will soon find out, “Only God Forgives”, but these audiences do not.
Note: Of course, this post isn't necessarily intended to be an accurate representation of the public response's response to this divisive film (at the time of this writing, "Only God Forgives" has received 187 5-star reviews on iTunes against 111 1-star thrashings). But it 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. The CinemaScore couldn't have been pretty.
As we can see here, “Only God Forgives” has inspired many to dub it the single worst movie ever made, presumably because of its vaguely problematic Orientalist dimension, or perhaps simply because its Freudian elements feel too simplistic and shallowly defined. Some of the most irritated Twitter users, as seen here, are people already on a first-name basis with Ryan Gosling, who must be especially disappointed with their close personal friend. Pay attention, too, to the useful reminder from Twitter user @Shanda, who points out that the hour and a half spent watching the film is not, in fact, refundable, especially when you cut out the managerial middleman and just click that alluring "Rent" button on iTunes.
Much like “Drive”, “Only God Forgives” has been putting even its most patient viewers to sleep, as summarily proven by the dissent shown here. Again, Ryan Gosling devotees bear the brunt of the disappointment, though happily it is alleviated somewhat by his prettiness, made better (it’s implied) by the sumptuous high-gloss cinematography of Larry Smith. A shame, then, that the film’s vision of Bangkok as a den of debauchery and sin is so shopworn and played out in Western depictions of the city, a tired retread of racist tropes that can only be described as “boring”.
By far the most common reaction from “Only God Forgives” detractors, however, was that the film is, quote, “f*cked up”, as evidenced by these tweets. It isn’t exactly clear what element of the film is most f*cked, but we can only assume that it is either its sudden tonal shifts or its flagrant pacing problems.
Sadly, the film seemed to fare no better on other social networking sites, as the official “Only God Forgives” Facebook fan page was alight over the weekend with angry words from those who’d seen it. Many seemed upset at what they perceived to be a conflation of Eastern values with outmoded and somewhat reductive conceptions of “karma” and spirituality, which is understandable.