Movie Showdown: Drive vs. Only God Forgives

Welcome to a brand new feature for the blog where I pit two films together for a review fight.  So without further a do – let’s get ready to rumble!

In some ways it probably feels wrong to pit Drive and Only God Forgives together in a review battle.  Both films are completely different and highly stylized which director Nicolas Winding Refn is no stranger to.  His films such as Bronson and Valhalla Rising show gritty, often dark, cerebrally twisted and violent representations of the human conscious.    They are often difficult to take in and can easily divide opinion.  While Bronson was the film for me that got me into his work, you could probably argue that Drive and his recent film, Only God Forgives showed an increased in his popularity as a director, especially when a high profile actor, Ryan Gosling stars in both of them.  I recently had a double bill watching both films – which one came out on top?

“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?” – Driver (Drive)

Drive is a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time and finally got the opportunity to do so when it premiered on TV over the Christmas holidays.  From my first initial viewing, I was actually impressed. Adapted from book to screen, Drive comes off as a tribute to computer games such as Grand Theft Auto, or for those who remember it, Driver on the Playstation 1 (which the game was inspired by films like Driver and Bullet) – and vice versa.  It’s visually cool with an addictive soundtrack that creates mood and tension.

For the nameless driver (who is clearly hiding a shady past), the quiet nuance from Ryan Gosling’s performance is what makes this film works.  As a part time mechanic and stunt driver, the opening of the film clearly sums him up as a character.  He’s no nonsense, he rarely panics, has precision for time and a quiet sense of authority and experience.  For a job that always contains a certain amount of high risk, his demeanour is always the same, almost like he is trying to keep a low profile.  The reason for the non-talk is never explained.  Maybe he would rather let his knowledge of cars and his driving do the “talking”.  Maybe he prefers the silence because he has been around the block and the people he surrounds himself around talk a lot of crap.  Or maybe he can see the world differently – the hypocrisy, the greed and the injustice, just like Travis Bickle could in Taxi Driver.  But the dynamic changes when he falls for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother with a young son.  The relationship is never romanticized but being around Irene makes him better.  He smiles and enjoys their company.

What makes Drive stand out is that it’s the examination of obsession and morality.  The driver, maybe because of his shady past, wants to do right.  Even when Irene announces to the driver that her husband, Standard was coming out of prison, it doesn’t deter him even though initially he was disappointed.  In another film, the situation could have easily been clichéd where desires are fulfilled and affairs in motion.  But instead the driver respects it and doesn’t want to break up a potential happy home.  He wants to do right by Irene.  But after Standard is murdered in a botched up heist that was suppose to win his freedom, the driver goes on a revenge bender to get those responsible.  It’s a great performance from Gosling.  There is one scene in particular where he shows the caring beauty for Irene and the full violent rage he switches to in order to protect her.  He brilliantly showcases the hidden depth of the character.  Was the violence upsetting?  Considering that I’ve watched Bronson, which mixed Bronson’s dark and theatrical performance with every punch and kick, Drive’s violence is straight to the point and I didn’t find it overly or excessively done.

“Time to meet the devil.” – Billy (Only God Forgives)

only god forgives_still

I really wanted to love Only God Forgives.  I really do but in the end it was so-so for me.  I know there are some positive reviews on the film but I just didn’t fall head over heels over it.  By no means is Only God Forgives a sequel to Drive because tonally and structurally they are both different.

I guess why Drive is pleasing on the eye boils down to the balance of the film.  It’s a great mixture of dark, brooding mood with a bit of a moral heart.  Only God Forgives (sorry to use the phrase) is unforgiving because that is the only way I can describe it.  When you look at the characters in the film you realise that each one of them are as despicable as their actions dictate.  You have a retired cop who walks around with a sword turning himself into judge, jury and executioner, all at the same time.  You have Crystal, played by the almost unrecognisable Kristin Scott Thomas who holds her murdered first born son to such high esteem and yet he was killed for raping and murdering a young girl.  Even before his death, he was enquiring about having sex with a fourteen-year-old girl.

With it’s strong visual presence and yet minimalist tone, all you are left with is the question why?  Why is the cop going round doing those things?  Who put him in charge?  Was he personally afflicted or did he view himself as God?  Why in all the shots with karaoke scenes are the audience members perfectly still, like dolls?  Why does Crystal hold her first-born as if he is a godsend or something when he has done questionable things?

It’s very clear that Julian (Ryan Gosling) is psychologically damaged and has a messed up family, but he doesn’t react.  He often stays in silence and staring most of the time.  He often looks at his hands, his weapon of destruction in which (according to his mother) he killed his father with his bare hands.  Being out in Thailand he struggles to find himself and his purpose.  His mother (who thinks he is the runt of the family) constantly talks down to him, mentally robbing every essence of what makes him a man.  I guess that is what is a little unsettling about Only God Forgives – it’s Ryan Gosling’s non-communication and pulling the same blank stare in almost every scene.  Did he hate his brother?  Is he fond of his mother, Crystal – all those questions are left with the other characters to fill in rather than the mysterious Julian himself.

Only God Forgives is more style over actual substance.  It acts almost like an art-house picture or even a David Lynch film because of its surrealism and openness to interpretation. It just didn’t grab my attention enough to keep me invested as your mind searches for a deeper meaning or justification.  Its just one tone all the way through with Gosling showing (at times) one single facial expression.  I can safely say that the film is definitely not for everyone.  I found it so-so while others will say it’s a misunderstood classic and maybe in a week, month or a year, my opinion may change – it happens.  It simply boils down to cinema taste.  Whilst I love the strong visuals and understand Julian’s internal anguish, the metaphors and the final moment of the film, it’s essentially a film in which you will have to fill in the blanks because you won’t get any answers, certainly not initially.  I don’t think the trailer did the film any favours.  For me, that was never an issue but you would probably feel like you were sold down the river if you had seen it.  It paints it as a straight up revenge film set in an atmospheric neon-lit Thailand, but really it’s a quiet, internalising, visual yet cerebral film about a man wanting to feel whole again.  The plot is not complicated yet some scenes are dragged out for long periods of time.

I don’t hate Only God Forgives but maybe I was expecting a bit more from it.  Maybe I wanted to see more emotional engagement from Gosling’s character so it’s not the same essence as his character from Drive.  Maybe I wanted a hint of a reason with the retired cop was doing the things he did.

It’s an ambitious film but weird.

And the winner is…

Drive

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind. Loves sci-fi and LEGO - couldn't ask for a better combo!

11 thoughts

  1. I am going to come right out and say it: I HATED Only God Forgives. Drive is something I only watched a few months ago and I have rewatched it a few times in between. It is an excellent flick and I must say that it was amazing, well put together and presented, had a solid cast, a good story and just came together well. I so wanted to love Only God Forgives, especially seeing as there were so many differing reviews, but I just couldn’t handle it. It looked pretty, and I don’t CARE about how much symbolism and what not was put in there, I was horrified with the end result and will not be watching it again. Such a pity, too!

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    1. That is essentially what was wrong with Only God Forgives – you end up not caring for any of the characters. Too much metaphor symbolism/art and not enough substance.

      At least visually and the soundtrack were good but not enough to qualify as a good movie. Shame really.

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      1. They were shallow, disgusting, set my teeth on edge and I cannot handle speech like what they delivered. I can handle vulgar, right, but there is a time and a place, and the entirety of conversation in here was designed to shock. Especially that dinner conversation, I was HORRIFIED! I agree, everyone keeps going on about it all and I feel that it missed the mark completely!

        Truly. I was not expecting another Drive, per se, but what Refn did with that was mind blowing. This was shallow, fickle and gross.

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      2. A lot of things didn’t make sense. All the characters are as bad as each other. Crystal came across as an unforgiving trashy mother (like she was better than everyone else), her son Billy was despicable and Julian barely said a word. It makes you wonder how the film got made. I hope Refn next film works out because I do like him as a director but it needs to be better than this.

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      3. I agree with you there. I am hoping he delivers something with the strength that Drive had. It doesn’t need to be LIKE it, but it needs to have the same standards.

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  2. I like this feature, although sadly I can’t pick a winner as I’ve only seen Drive.
    It’s funny I really didn’t like Drive on first viewing but grew to love it on subsequent rewatches, and I even picked up the James Sallis novel and enjoyed that too.
    From your review I don’t think I’d enjoy Only God Forgives, so I’ll probably give it a miss, although I will be back for your next Movie Showdown. Have you any idea which movies you’re going to feature?

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    1. Hey thanks for commenting! Really appreciate it.

      I do have some more showdown reviews to write and will post soon. Just want to get some of the recent films I’ve watched out of my head first! A hint for the next showdown – both films were released last year 🙂

      Drive is excellent. Only God Forgives is a miss that will leave you with more questions than answers.

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