Film Review – Only God Forgives
There is something distinctly unique in the experience of watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film. No matter what the subject matter, there is always something antagonistic waiting under the surface to either shock with visceral intensity or disturb with subtle ease. As the Dutch writer/director has said in interviews, he wants people to have such a strong reaction to his films that they walk away either loving or hating them: no middle ground. Also a professed fetish filmmaker, Refn presents his movies with an obsessive visual desire to burn permanent images of moments and ideas into the minds of his viewers, and, in so doing, creates an atmosphere that’s either hypnotic or repelling—either of which depends on the viewer’s approach to each of his films.
After the surprise success of Drive, and an award for Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, many people thought Refn would steer more into the commercially safe zone, rather than return to the meditative, surreal, and violent arena he forged a career on. But that would defy the career that Refn built by making divisive stories of gory permutations that cuddle themselves in beautiful blankets of thoughtful colors and artistic visual grammar. So with his latest film, Only God Forgives, Refn has steered no further from that course set before he and Ryan Gosling crossed rubber burnt roads, and gives us another piece of beautiful exploitation.
Set in Thailand, the story centers around a boxing club owner named Julian (Gosling), who also deals drugs through the criminal underworld. When Julian’s brother is murdered, he’s tasked by his mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), who’s come to Thailand to bring his brother’s body back home, to find the people responsible and kill them. Julian doesn’t want to make trouble with the local law, but discovers the situation is way more complicated than they thought, and involves a seasoned detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who acts as a benevolent angel of justice by balancing wrongs in the manner he sees fit. On a crime movie scale, it sounds both epic and familiar. However, there is very little here in the way of a story that is familiar, and ultimately it’s more intimate than anything epic.
Refn has made it publicly known on many occasions how much avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has had an influence on him, and that they’ve become close friends over the last few years. He even goes so far as to dedicate this film to Jodorowski. And while at times it feels like there are moments trying to capture the psychedelic, spiritual explorations surrounding contrasting violence like Jodorowski so effortlessly employs, Only God Forgives never fully reaches that connection in the surreal that, even when not understood, comes across like it is full of meaning. There is a lot of beautiful imagery here; even splayed torsos are painted with color and light so as to absorb the viewer’s eyes ever more towards the grotesque. It’s a dance that the filmmaker wants to play with you, daring you to not look away, all the while enticing you with visual acumen.
It all would almost feel like a giant bait and switch, if it wasn’t for the fact that somewhere between the gore and the meditations, there’s an earnest sense of a desire to be both expressive and entertaining at the same time. That is something that Refn has certainly spent a career of nine films prior to this one attempting. For a really great surprise, check out Fear X starring John Turturro; perhaps Refn’s most concise film, it still manages to feel dreamlike and meditative once it’s over. This film, though, is a bit of a conundrum, in that what works against it is also what works for it. While the imagery that juxtaposes the narrative seems almost haphazard and Lynchian in its need to be there simply because it can, that doesn’t mean that is necessarily the case. Metaphors are integral to this world of non-American customs; characters are motivated by both integrity—presented here as honor—and greed alike. What’s more pressing about the film’s approach to symbolic meaning is its lack of vocal communication. There is not a lot of dialogue at use, similar to Drive and to Refn’s metaphysical Viking odyssey Valhalla Rising. And, as the director himself has acknowledged, some people are really averse to a lack of being told. It’s a point of contention that goes beyond just film. Music is often divisive in the same way. Here, the movie speaks without saying much. Metaphors fill the frame, from the use of color to a character’s ability to make a sword appear from nowhere. It all becomes a matter of knowing what to look for and where that idea came from.
Like Tarantino is to film references, Refn is to mythology and philosophy. References to the academic areas of interest that preoccupied him at the time he was making a movie are strewn throughout his work. Here, it’s very much an Asian influence of genre films, mythology, and pop-psychology. Ryan Gosling spends most of his screen time brooding about everything that’s on his mind, while Kristen Scott Thomas truncates the brooding tranquility with a brash, adversarial approach to everyone, including her son’s girlfriend, who in one scene takes a verbal lashing that is on par with any viscera that’s displayed on screen. Both actors are in fine form, and serve the film’s greater purpose of garnering an extreme reaction from its audience. There’s a point of absurdity that is eventually reached amongst the blood, entrails, and portentous mise-en-scene that pretty much invites the audience to not take it seriously. But then, right when you’re about to comply, Refn deftly replies with something so beautifully constructed that you realize you don’t care if it’s trash or art—you just want to mainline whatever that is to continue the rush.
Final Grade: A