“I could have easily made a much safer choice, a formula that had easily worked before. To avoid doing that, I had to go away and explode” – Nicholas Winding Refn
Only God Forgives is an ambitious, atomic explosion. A blast so overwhelming it has left critics and audiences divided. Upon its first exposure at the Cannes film festival, the film received a brutal critique and since its theatrical release many have acknowledged the flaws it has. Conversely very few have praised what has been accomplished. Only God Forgives is not a collective success, but a personal achievement for Nicholas Winding Refn.
Set in the criminal underworld of Bangkok, the film centers on Julian (Ryan Gosling) an American who runs a boxing club, which is a front for a massive drug smuggling operation. When his older brother Billy (whom rapes and murders an underage prostitute) is found murdered, Julian’s domineering mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) induces him to discover and kill the person responsible for Billy’s death. Leading Julian to face off with ‘The Angel of Death” Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Simple enough eh?
General moviegoers will find Only God Forgives a tedious experience, for its very slow pacing, simplistic storyline as well as lack of emotional attachment to the characters. None of who are pleasant in the first place. The strong themes of revenge, religion and redemption are brutally executed through astonishingly elaborate set pieces. The bloodshed isn’t there for entertainment but more really as asking a question about. Nor is it a film feeding off the success to Refn’s Drive. Some may argue that Gosling is perhaps playing the same role again and again, but with only given twenty-two lines of dialogue, Gosling is able to deliver the emotional weakness of his character through his eyes and physicality. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers most of the dialogue in the film through a brilliantly, vindictive performance as Crystal. On screen together, Gosling and Thomas convey an Oedipal complexity between their characters, which is the interesting development that we explore as the tale progresses. Vithaya Pansringarm brings a strong, memorable presence to the film, embodying very much of the films themes.
Only God Forgives is visual narrative storytelling in its highly stylistic best. Whether we’re watching an excruciatingly violent sequence or gazing in those blue, pearled eyes of Ryan Gosling, the film is beautifully photographed. With very little dialogue in the screenplay, Larry Smith’s cinematography allows us to discover the much finer details of a disturbing portrayal of Bangkok, which at times is breathtaking to explore. Cliff Martinez shines yet again with music fast, gothic and disturbing as well as quirky when it needs to be – utilized best in a particular fight scene.
Nicholas Winding Refn is clearly screaming for attention with Only God Forgives regardless of the reception it receives. It’s a well-composed film aesthetically; the imagery alone is incredibly powerful. Yet the film does suffer from being too self-indulgent. The intrigue however of Only God Forgives is not so much the onscreen storyline, but the back-story of a brave opportunity for a director to unleash some anger buried deep within. A chance for Refn to experiment with his voice and develop as a storyteller – one of the keys to being a great artist. In other words, Only God Forgives is a confession, which is hidden in a twisted illusion exposed on the cinematic canvas. For any director, it is incredibly difficult to tell a story they want to tell and in their own way – without a system of ‘rules’. Very few have been able to say they’ve done so – This is a great achievement, which cannot be ignored and most certainly should be applauded.