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Cage Match: ‘Only God Forgives’

In Cage Match, critics fight it out over a divisive movie. Two reviews enter; one review leaves.

Introducing Cage Match, where Criticwire picks one critic on each side of a divisive movie and lets them fight it out. Two reviews enter; one review leaves.

This week’s bout: David Edelstein of New York takes on Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald, over Nicholas Winding Refn’s violent, stylized Only God Forgives, now in theaters and on-demand.


In the magical kingdom of Upside-Down-Opposite Land, Only God Forgives — which marks the reunion of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling — is an entrancing masterwork. Here you will find a revenge melodrama set in the innermost chamber of the heart of darkness, its faces bathed in blood red, its ceremonial action slowed to a crawl and held up for ghastly inspection, as in a Japanese Noh play…. In my own world, Only God Forgives plays somewhat differently. I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen. In fact, I was depressed it wasn’t laughed off the screen. 


The seriousness with which Refn treats Only God Forgives has led to much critical ridicule. But mocking the improbable characters and bizarre juxtapositions is too literal and superficial a reading of this dreamy, entrancing movie. Refn knows exactly what he’s doing — he’s in on the joke — and he revels in the sensory pleasures of film as an art form (the score by Cliff Martinez, who also did Drive, is practically a character here). There are moments in Only God Forgives when you feel an inexplicable urge to laugh, and there are moments, too, when you recoil from the horrors on the screen. 


The extreme gore is Dinner Theater of Cruelty.


Refn’s style and aesthetic become part of the narrative, which is simple enough to encapsulate in one sentence. But the story is given dimension and heft by the elliptical way in which it unfolds. Refn dares to give genre respect and gravity — this is, at heart, a straightforward tale of revenge — and he injects a strong Oedipal subtext into the film, hinting at the reasons why Julian is unable to resist his mother’s orders and silently suffers her brusque insults.


Kristin Scott Thomas comes off best as Hellmom, largely because the camp of her role slices through the movie’s solemnity the way the ex-cop’s  sword slices through flesh and bone. But she is very good. This is the one place where the real world and Upside-Down-Opposite Land intersect — an event with the potential to rupture the space-time continuum and a fertile area for Christopher Nolan’s next three-hour film about illusion, reality, and the ease with which you can psych an audience out by pretending what you’re saying is of cosmic importance.

The winner: A close decision, but Rodriguez makes the more compelling case, even if, critically speaking, he doesn’t have much company

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Dana Keith, Miami Beach Cinematheque

Rene definitely wins this round. We have followed the reviews to this film from the very beginning, and there are many kneejerk negative comments and infantile rants (like Rex Reed's), but the most thought out and compelling discussions are those appreciating or at least acknowledging Refn's work as an artist, and realizing this is not meant to appeal to mass American audiences as a commercial product. It happens to have a major American star in it, so people may have various problems like the fact that he has so few lines. As for the violence, it is overhyped. The scene in the elevator in DRIVE was equally violent, and much of this film's violence is off-screen (warning, not all, but take the Thai advise in the film if you feel you must…and close your eyes during those moments.). What's good about all of this? It has already broken records at MBC for the variety of audience interest and engagement, with only the first two shows. And not just our regular cinephiles, but curious people who had never been to MBC before. Two packed houses (with many turned away who are returning), full of people who spoke intelligently about the film afterwards (in some cases, for hours), thanks, in part, to Rene's articulate defense of it as a work of art. Thanks Rene, for winning a round for the sake of auteur cinema, that some people just may not like.


Rodriguez's critique is much more articulate and substantial. Edelstein remains mostly blind to subtext and the purpose of style in the medium. He strikes me as a very intelligent man who likes movies and knows how to write, yet doesn't understand the artist.

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