Only God Forgives (2013) Review
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Certificate: 18 Running Time: 1hr 30 mins
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhata Phongam
Plot: When Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) brother is murdered, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks vengeance and compels Julian to identify and extract revenge upon his killer.
Danish visionary auteur Nicolas Winding Refn has a precocious gift of creating films which inspire yet confound, frustrate yet mesmerise and undoubtedly leave a unique mark. His talent has seen him flourish and work with stellar names such as Mads Mikkelsen on the ‘Pusher’ trilogy and the harrowing ‘Valhalla Rising’ (2009), the brute force of Tom Hardy in ‘Bronson’ (2008) and more recently, the inimitable Ryan Gosling in the superb ‘Drive’ (2011). Refn’s latest feature Only God Forgives trades blows with ‘Valhalla Rising’ and is victorious in affirming its status the Dane’s most existential, art-house and confounding work to date. It is unfathomably stylistic, neon-lit Bangkok provides a scintillating yet infernal backdrop to the ultra-violent, revenge psycho-drama which transpires. Framed as a gangland vengeance thriller, Refn has crafted distinctive sub-layers to Only God Forgives: it is a blood-soaked fable of a twisted Freudian relationship between mother and son whilst also depicting man’s eternal tussle with God’s will.
Those familiar with Refn’s work will not be surprised that dialogue is restricted to the bare minimum. Instead, the director relies on emblematic, dream-like imagery which loosely guides the audience through the criminal underworld of the notorious Bangkok. Julian (Gosling) is as much an avatar for us to follow rather than a meaningful character with a back-story, as always Gosling impresses with his menacing presence and stone-cold demeanour. His on-screen chemistry with his mother (the terrific Kristin Scott Thomas) is electric, their fractious relationship reaching boiling point in a memorable dinner sequence. Thomas’s introduction is perfectly timed and her mere presence adds momentum and impetus to the story in its ponderous middle period. Refn casts his lens over the friction between mother and her offspring, there is a clear emotional detachment palatable in their tension filled encounters. Despite Julian’s use of excessive violence, he does practice mercy and has a conscience. A stark contrast to the ruthless nature of his crime family.
The role of Chang, the sword wielding police officer, is the most abstract and thought provoking in Only God Forgives. He commands authority and is evidently responsible for restoring balance on Earth. Seemingly capable of supernatural power, Chang can be interpreted from a number of perspectives. Is he a metaphor for God’s presence, the embodiment of God’s will on Earth? Or the angel of death bringing violent destruction upon those breaching his course? Refn has admitted his desire to capture his inner turmoil and film a physical fight between man and God to serve as a powerful metaphor for the helplessness of mortals in response to divine will (The Muay Thai encounter between Julian and Chang). The notion of a concrete, pre-determined destiny is explored in brutal fashion. Of course, there will be those who dismiss Refn’s characters as mere vehicles for him to satisfy his sadistic tendencies. This is slow burning cinema which borders on unwatchable at times but there is an intangible, indescribable power generated by the Dane. Striking imagery which will remain in the subconscious long after the fittingly poignant Thai ballad at the final credits.
Many will argue that Only God Forgives is more style over substance. The wildly contrasting walk-out/standing ovation reaction at Cannes Film Festival this year has proved to be a microcosm of the public’s reaction. Such daringly audacious film-making will elicit a strong opinion either way. Whilst the immediate aftermath leaves the viewer in a state of flux and overwhelming confusion, Only God Forgives has a more subtle, permeating impact which iteratively crystallises itself upon further reflection. Backed by one of the the most eclectic and blistering soundtracks of the year, Refn has imagined a hellish world of intoxicating beauty where violence dances with art whilst fury meets forgiveness.