The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Did the critic who gave Only God Forgives a 5/5 rating suffer from sunstroke?

with 27 comments


Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian gave Only God Forgives a 5/5 star rating after watching it in Cannes.

The unanimous verdict by the Swedish film critics was that he suffered from sunstroke and clearly had lost his mind.

They on the other hand hated it, passionately. They sighed at the over-the-top violence, they despised Ryan Gosling’s quietly staring appearance, calling it a parody on himself, mocking him for the all in all 17 lines he had in the movie (I haven’t counted it myself, but it seems plausible.) And they loathed it for being so pretty and stylish, considering it a bimbo movie, which looked great but was void of any substance, soul or meaning.

Why I hesitated
Of course I didn’t let this stop me from watching it. People booed at it at Cannes, so what? It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They’ve raved over movies that I’ve hated as well for that sake. Festival audiences seem to be a kind of their own and highly unreliable when it came to guidance about what to see.

What did make me hesitate was the idea of Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn teaming up again for yet another violence packed movie. I shivered as I thought back at our last encounter, Drive. While I ended up appreciating it for the excellence in craft and execution, it was a struggle for me to get through it at all. Since my company had taken cover in fetal position, refusing to look at the screen, I felt it as an obligation to keep looking so I could relate it to her afterwards. The sound that a scull makes if you jump on it until it breaks was still clear in my memory. Deep down I was a squishy. So why would I want to expose myself to that kind of thing again?

To that I don’t have any clear answer. It probably was a combination: one part the attraction of Ryan Gosling’s presence, one part the memory that I actually had given Drive a 4,5/5 rating, despite my quandaries, one part rebellion against the establishment. If it was Peter Bradshaw against the world, he could use some assistance. I needed to find out for myself if it was as bad as they said.

More arthouse than action
If anyone thought that violence was an important selling argument, you might want to reconsider. As far as I remember, there were five of us in the theatre, or rather four and a half. There was this woman who seemed to be undecided whether to stay or leave. Most of the film she spent standing at the end of a row, with her jacket on, as if she was about to evacuate the room any second. (I assumed that she was nauseated by the blood and gore and needed some air, but thinking closer about it I realize now that she might not have intended to leave at all. Perhaps she just had a pain in her back and needed to stand up for a while.)

In any case it was clear that it wasn’t a huge box office hit. The story isn’t overly complicated: two sides take vengeance on each other by killing, chipping off body parts with a short sword or simply smashing the other one into a bloody mess, depending on the art of the wrongdoing and grade of guilt. But it’s told in a manner that is too slow and strange to attract a wide audience. More arthouse than action, which is exactly the reason why I liked it as much as I did.

The night club settings make me think of David Lynch and blood colour carries a reminiscence of Suspiria: intensely red and abundant to the degree that you can’t really believe in it, engage with it or get genuinely upset about it (especially since there’s no character in this movie to root for, not even Ryan Gosling, despite his kind, yearning eyes). In some perverted way you stll enjoy watching it because it’s beautiful and haunting.

Modern art installation
I can definitely understand and sympathize with those who consider it as speculative and superficial. I see where you’re coming from and I admit that I’m not capable of providing any deep and clever interpretation of what all this means either.  This movie reminds me of modern art installations, like the one at the Modern Museum of Art in Stockholm a few years ago: raw red meat hanging in hooks from the ceiling. It’s up to the viewer to provide a “meaning” to the object.

The critic who gave Only God Forgives a 5/5 knew what he was doing. No sunstroke there. On the other hand I’d say the same thing about those who gave it a 2/5. I hear you all guys, regardless of where on the scale you are.

For my own part I’m siding with The Guardian (although a litle bit more restrained in my rating). I thought it was excellent. Style over substance? Maybe, but there’s something condescending about that expression, isn’t there? I’d rather say that the style in this movie IS the substance. And there’s nothing wrong about that.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

June 18, 2013 at 12:53 am

Posted in Only God Forgives

27 Responses

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  1. I absolutely loved Drive, so I’ll definitely be seeing this. Didn’t even know about this. Thanks for the heads up!

    Jeff Peters

    June 18, 2013 at 12:57 am

    • It sees as if we got an early opening here in Scandinavia, possibly because the director is Danish. But when it eventually will reach you, I think you should see it if you’re a fan of Drive. A bit of a warning though: it’s not as easy to sympathise with Gosling’s character as in Drive. There’s really no one to really root for. Which can explain a bit of the cool reception.


      June 18, 2013 at 1:03 am

  2. […] received an abundance of negative reviews. Defying consensus however is The Velvet Cafe. Read her response to the […]

  3. Can’t wait to see it (although I think it’ll be a while until it reaches the U.S.), not only because I loved ‘Drive’, but because I loved another film released last year that got similar dismissive reviews out of the gate (eg, just a bunch of prurient violence) – ‘Killer Joe’.


    June 18, 2013 at 4:23 am

    • Yeah, I remember that. You made a most excellent case for Killer Joe. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll turn up liking this. From what I’ve seen so far it seems as if the movie has been a little bit better received in Australia than in Europe. I hope it will get some love on the other side of the Atlantic as well.


      June 18, 2013 at 11:20 pm

  4. I’m glad to finally see some positivity linked to this film! Great review and dissection of how fickle and random festival critics can be! The whole ‘style over substance’ stamp of disapproval bothers me. This was another film that people were so quick to dismiss with it’s style (similar to how quickly people poo poo-ed Gatsby). Looking forward to this one!!

    Courtney Young

    June 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    • Thanks! I’m honestly tired of the dismissal of movies for bringing “style over content”. I don’t want to hear it again and I’ll try remember not using those phrases either. Actually I loved Gatsby too.
      I like movies that look gorgeous or at least interesting and I’m not ashamed to say so. I like movies that look plain too btw. I can find a 1,5 hour conversation between two people in a room captivating, even if it looks dreadful. It’s not one or the other, there’s no opposition.You can relly embrace both.


      June 18, 2013 at 11:23 pm

      • I agree completely. I think it’s absolutely silly to criticize a film for being “too stylish” …pfftttt.

        Courtney Young

        June 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  5. Yeah, style over substance is one of those critic crutches that just gets tossed around too pointlessly. I mean, have people seen The Big Sleep?! So much style, so little substance, and sheer, unstoppable brilliance. Sometimes the reward of the film is found IN the filmmaking.

    I’ll definitely go see this one whenever it gets to my neck of the woods.


    June 19, 2013 at 1:58 am

    • I might be guilty of having used it in my passed but it’s really something I want to avoid in the future. Especially when it’s used as a negative, it bugs me. As you say – movies can be all about the brilliant surface and there’s nothing wrong about that priovided it’s beautiful enough.


      July 14, 2013 at 11:55 pm

  6. This is great to hear Jessica. We rarely disagree on movies and to hear you give praise to this, warms my heart. I want this to be good as I adored Drive and was hoping for more of the same. It was disappointing the hear the critics views on it but you have given me hope again.

    Mark Walker

    June 19, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    • I wouldn’t rank it quite as high as Drive, but I certainly don’t regret watching it. I hope you’re going to like it!


      July 14, 2013 at 11:56 pm

      • Thought I’d swing by again having just seen it, Jessica. I have to say, we are both on the same page again. I really liked this. I can’t pretend to fully understand it but I went with the Symbolic and surreal nature of it all. You’re right that it isn’t as good as Drive but its an entirely different movie altogether. Gotta give Refn and Gosling credit for doing something different here.

        Mark Walker

        August 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm

        • Hey there! I’m so glad that you swinged by and that I didn’t trick you into watching something that you ended up not liking! I have a lot of blog reading after my vacation to catch up with, including your post about this one. I’ll get back to it ASAP!


          August 13, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  7. […] upp till sitt namn, och här hittar ni Except Fears hyllning till filmen. Uppdatering: Nu har även Jessica sett filmen och hon ställer frågan om kritikern som gav den 5/5 i Cannes hade drabbats av […]

  8. Have been a bit hesitant to go see this at the cinema…since the opninions are mixed I’ll wait to check it out in the comfort of my home in a while…


    June 20, 2013 at 10:14 am

    • I’m glad I saw it in a theatre, but of course it depends on what you have available at home. But please – watch it on a proper screen. Not on a cell phone or something…


      July 14, 2013 at 11:57 pm

      • Ended up watching it on a tablet, but it is a stunning thing to watch. Personally I really loved it. My review of it is up now…


        August 30, 2013 at 11:01 am

  9. Nice review. Agree with most of what you say. It was really art over action. It’s funny, I really like Drive, I Saw the Devil, Killer Joe and a number of really violent movies but there was something in Only God Forgives that gave me a sickening feeling. Here’s my 1/5 review. 😉

    Reading Google translated reviews (especially your own) is a weird thing.


    June 20, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    • I know what you mean about sickening… I’m almost a little surprised at myself how well I coped with it, for all its violence.


      July 14, 2013 at 11:57 pm

  10. Hi Jessica! I’m not fond of Gosling in general and I know this movie isn’t for me at all because of the extreme violence. So I won’t be watching this NOT because people booed at it at Cannes, I don’t always agree with critics anyway. As far as ‘style over substance’ movies, I don’t mind them sometimes, though I much prefer that the style doesn’t involve too much blood and gore 😀


    July 3, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    • If you’re not a Gosling fan and if you don’t like extreme violence at all, I think it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t bother about this one. 🙂


      July 14, 2013 at 11:58 pm

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  12. I don’t have the expertise to approach this picture from the perspective of its technical merit.

    However, I found the content to be thought-provoking and rather interesting.

    I really liked the way in which Julian’s mother emerged at the opposite of Chang. At first I thought it would be Julian who would be that opposite. Winding Refn has stated that the god-like depiction of Chang was intentional and I think that mother of Julian emerges as the personification of the satanic.

    Julian, of course, is caught between the two, and while the mother’s work has been completed in Billy who, in one scene, says “time to meet the devil” before unveiling something of the evil of his own character, Julian still possess traces of goodness which, not coincidentally, manifest when he disregards the stated wishes of his mother.

    Julian is a damaged man but I found interested the possibility that he might begin to find himself reintegrated; that he might be free from the influence of the evil. He has things for which he must make amends, but, as the title suggests, Only God Forgives.

    This was a very interesting and thought-provoking picture and, in my opinion, I don’t think Bradshaw has suffered from sunstroke.


    Kelly W.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:39 am

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful comment and for sharing your blog post! I agree with you: there’s hope about Julian, even if he’s damaged.


      September 1, 2013 at 11:17 pm

  13. […] Only God Forgives Only surface? Perhaps. But what a surface! […]

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