Editor’s Note: This review has been republished in conjunction with the theatrical and the VOD release on February 27, 2015. It originally posted with the rest of our reviews and coverage at Fantastic Fest this past September.
When a filmmaker sets out to tell a story, their goals are simple: get the ideas they have in their head on to the screen, and have the audience enjoy it. Seems straightforward enough, but there are a multitude of challenges to achieve either goal. Really, the odds are stacked against every filmmaker simply because we the audience are becoming increasingly tougher to satisfy. A lot of it comes from how much content is out there at any given time. Just look at how many films are released every week, and that’s not counting the DTV or smaller independent titles.
There’s so much we as an audience have seen before, so the struggle in the filmmaking process is to give us something new or, at least, put a interesting spin on something familiar. Now Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who has shown he is more than capable of creating things that are wholly unique. But sometimes, in the quest to craft and tell the story, the finish line doesn’t just look impossibly far away, it almost ceases to exist.
The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising showed the world what Refn was capable of, and further, how his stories were more of an experience than a narrative. But while Drive was very much in the same vein, it was also the most commercial story he has to his credit. Further, to a somewhat unfortunate degree, this would be the benchmark to which audiences would compare all future work. So it’s not just a struggle to make a film, but now there’s the added stress of meeting certain expectations based on previous success.
Only God Forgives is, without a doubt, Refn’s most personal work. It’s a film that was told exactly the way he wanted, and everything he wanted on share with the audience is on the screen. But while it was critically panned, a lot of it stems from people not understanding it (in addition to not liking it). Film is subjective, and, granted, Refn’s ambiguous story suffered from a lack of exposition. But sometimes it’s not just the audience who gets lost, the director can as well. That’s the point this documentary is trying to make.
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn is an incredibly intimate look at the director’s time during the filming of Only God Forgives. It’s a compilation of home movies, shot by his wife Liv Corfixen (check out our great interview with them both here), that are seamed together to create a behind the scenes story showing the toll Only God Forgives took on Refn and his family. It’s not intended to evoke pity; it shows that filmmakers really put their lives into their work and on the line. They leverage past successes just to get their current project a little close to reality.
Filmmaking is a difficult process because there’s no right answer. As Refn says, it’s all a chess match he’s playing with the audience. He moves, they react. If he moves again, and we’re still engaged, he starts to win. Otherwise, we move further and further away. Only God Forgives was a commercial loss for Refn but his wife’s picture shows he might have lost the match in the three years before filming started – only he just didn’t know it.
This doc is unafraid to share private discussions between Refn and Corfixen, the countless times Refn is painfully lost in thought attempting to comprehend his film, and candid confessions about the uncertainty of the film’s progress. It may seem like damage control a little too long after the fact but the doc is not a pity party. Not at all. It is a strong step toward owning the fact Refn didn’t even know what story he was trying to tell. It’s tough to watch anyone struggle with their passion and even more so if you’re a fan of the filmmaker’s work (and we’re huge fans). So what if Only God Forgives doesn’t have many fans? Refn might be down, but he’s certainly not out.