Refn and Gosling’s new flick got booed at Cannes. Let’s see how the screenplay fared.
Premise: A British man living in Bangkok goes after the man responsible for killing his brother.
About: This is the reteaming effort of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, who of course worked together on Drive. The big difference here is that Refn also wrote the script. The film just debuted at Cannes, where the crowd heavily booed it during the credits. Refn responded by saying that good films divide and challenge audiences, so he was okay with the booing. Either way, I wanted to read this screenplay.
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Details: 97 pages – 2nd draft
I’m not totally sure what to make of Nicolas Winding Refn yet. I loved the original Drive script, but he totally gutted it. Yet somehow the gutted version was just as good if not better than the original version. When I listen to his interviews, he sounds equal parts humble and full of himself. There are records of him breaking down and crying in cars in order to find the truth to his movies. Speaking to some people in the industry who have worked with him, he’s been described as an egomaniac crazy person on par with Amanda Bynes.
I guess none of that really matters though. What matters is the end product. And according to the French, the end product was pretty bad. And 999,999 times out of a million, you can trace back what’s wrong with a movie to the script. So I busted open Only God Forgives and started reading. I don’t know if I’d call this story boo-worthy so much as bore-worthy. It’s just not a very interesting narrative. I get the feeling Refn wanted to explore the depravity and dark alleys of Bangkok, and maybe focused more on that then actually writing a good script. Let’s take a look.
Only God Forgives follows 30-something Julian, a Brit (I’m assuming) living in Bangkok as (I think) a bookie for underground fights. The gist is, he lives a shady life. But not as shady as his brother Billy, who’s pretty much doing the same thing without the work ethic. After a fight, Billy goes out into the city, finds an underage hooker, has sex with her, then beats her and kills her. Oh yeah, this movie is not for the faint of heart.
In comes lead detective Chang, who carries with him an almost otherworldly presence. Chang finds the dead hooker’s father, yells at him for allowing this to happen, then tells him to go kill Billy. So the father walks in and beats Billy to a pulp, killing him. Yes, lots of killing in this movie. The detective then chops off the father’s arm for being a bad father.
Julian eventually finds out his brother was killed and goes after the killer, in this case the father, but when he finds him, he can’t seem to kill him. Eventually, Julian’s mother shows up, who throws the word “cunt” around like you and I do “screenplay.” She wants revenge on this father, so she puts a hit out on him.
Eventually, they learn that the father wasn’t really the bad guy here – it was Chang, who’s rumored in these parts to be the “Angel of Vengeance,” the man responsible for instituting karma (or something like that). For whatever reason, this title seems to affect Julian, who wants to fight Chang, as both of them were former fighters. Julian’s mother asks, as do we, “What the fuck do you think that will accomplish?” and Julian answers something to the effect of, “you wouldn’t understand,” which we, of course, do not either.
This eventually results in more violence, as at one point Julian blows Chang’s wife’s head off at point-blank range. I’m beginning to understand why this movie was booed. It’s violence on top of violence on top of depravity on top of depravity for no apparent reason. I mean, if the story dictates that violence and depravity need to happen, it works. But when there’s no story, it seems like you’re just exploiting it and that’s the quickest way to have an audience turn on you.
I always come back to the story. What’s the goal here? What are the stakes? Where’s the urgency? Only God Forgives has a goal, but it’s a flawed one. It’s for Julian to find out who killed his brother and get revenge. Here’s the problem though. The brother had sex with an underage hooker then beat her to death. Ummmm, why would we want to see a person like that avenged? We, of course, do not. So the story is flawed from the get-go.
Then the story shifts to this weird undefined showdown between Julian and Chang. I never quite understood it, but Chang is apparently this Angel of Vengeance, which is supposed to mean something, but I’m not really sure what. And I didn’t understand what Julian received by fighting him. At a certain point, even Julian realizes his brother is a low-life, so I don’t get why he’s even trying to avenge him anymore.
To make things even more bizarre, a quarter of the movie is dedicated to Chang singing Johnny Cash at a karaoke bar. It’s just all so strange. Here is this ruthless Angel of Vengenace who chops people’s limbs off, and he’s obsessed with karaoke. Sometimes that contrast can be cool, but here it just felt random, probably because the rest of the script felt random as well.
On top of all this violence and revenge, there are just a lot of bad people in this movie. The mother, in particular, is a really nasty person. When Julian tries to introduce his new girlfriend, she continually calls her a cunt and a prostitute. It’s just this constant barrage of humanity at its worst, and I’m not sure people want to watch that.
I remember writing a script a long time ago, and something about it wasn’t clicking and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I eventually realized that there was no hope in the script. Every character was evil. And if you don’t have some sense of hope, it’s hard to get on board. I mean, does an audience or reader want to be beat over the head with the message, “Everyone is terrible. Life is a meaningless exercise of human beings at their worst”? I don’t think so. Julian is our best shot at a “likable” character, but even he’s banging young hookers and blowing wives’ heads off. I’m all for the anti-hero, but at some point, you’ve gone too far.
If I were giving Refn notes, which I’m sure he’s glad I’m not – but if I were, I would’ve changed Billy from a brother who beats the hell out of underage hookers to a sister or a girlfriend. Now we have an innocent sister killed instead of a deadbeat brother. Already we’re waaaaaay more interested in Julian getting revenge. Sure, it’s more traditional, but I’ll take a traditional storyline that works over an non-traditional one that doesn’t any day.
Refn seems to want to settle this score in the ring, and as it stands, I didn’t even know Julian used to be a former fighter or that Chang had been as well, so when they decided to settle things with a fight, I was confused. So change Chang from a cop into a fighter. He’s an underground kingpin with several layers of security, and therefore Julian knows the only chance he’s got at killing this guy is in the ring. So he’s got to fight his way up the ladder to get a shot at him. I know, I know. This is starting to sound like a Bloodsport sequel, so maybe you tweak a few things here and there to keep the story fresh. But if Refn wants these guys to fight in a ring, that scenario makes a lot more sense than a guy we don’t even know is a fighter fighting a cop in the ring one night. Plot points kinda need to make sense.
In the end, this is just a really ugly look at a bunch of ugly people. And maybe that’s what Refn wanted. He is where he is because he takes chances and he does things differently. But he may have gone too far in this case. Drive was a good story with a set of clear goals and motivations for everyone involved. I didn’t see that here. This was a mess from the get-go.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re writing about a revenge or a kidnapping, pay close attention to who’s being killed or kidnapped. If this person is unlikable, cruel, a blowhard, a murderer, we won’t want to see them avenged. But if they’re helpless, innocent, and good, we most certainly will. Hence why it’s almost always a better choice to go with a woman/girl/child getting killed than a man. And why it’s a nice idea to make them a good person. Only God Forgives really could have used that.