Only God Forgives

...lacks a good story, but makes it up with aesthetically brilliant cinematography, sharp witted dialogue & plenty of style & mood.

Following the success of the shock and awe machismo in Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another strong dose of violence that has now become his institutionalized insignia. We wanted an encore and Only God Forgives has everything we have grown to expect from Refn – a story of revenge prescribed through gruesome violence, told in a chronological and evenly paced narrative, and set within an atmosphere abundant in style and mood. But within these parameters, Refn tells a simple story that can’t seem to decide if it is art-house circa, or camp bloodletting by way of impertinent freedom of speech. And this is probably one of the reasons why Only God Forgives was booed at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The other reason is obvious – an overindulgence in style with little or no substance. To be fair, we asked for it, and Refn responded with a concentrated formula derived from his preceding films. Now there is no going back. It is a matter of whether or not we were wise in what we wished for.

Joining Refn is Ryan Gosling in a role almost parallel to his introvert in Drive. Deeply conflicted, Gosling’s Julian is an American expatriate who runs a Muay Thai fight club in Bangkok; a front for a drug syndicate he operates with older brother Billy (Tom Burke). A suggestively themed background story creeps up later in the film, revealing just how sociopathic both brothers are. When Billy is lethally punished for a hyenious crime, Refn’s script unleashes not one, but two unapologetic characters that propel the narrative into a mesmerizing mode of madness and mayhem. The first is plain clothes policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an angel of vengeance, or perhaps the titular God, loathsome of the putrefying influence foreigners have on his people, and how low his people have stooped to appease said foreigners. The second is Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a repugnant racist who arrives to avenge her son’s death, and in the process, navigates a war path through Bangkok’s lethal underworld. Caught between his mother’s murderous cry for revenge and Chang’s unflinching brand of justice, Julian must either overpower his past or face the consequences coming his way.

One of my main disappointments is the fact that Gosling has nothing to work with. Punctuating frequent scenes of long hard stares into nothingness are a couple of words here and there and perhaps one or two sentences in the entire film. For the most part, Gosling maintains a passive-until-provoked demeanor but this changes towards the end when we realize Julian is not what he appears to be, nor anywhere near his Brando-esque persona in Drive. Contradicting Gosling’s mime is Thomas, almost unrecognizable as a high maintenance peroxide blonde with an American accent. A far cry from her Academy Award nominated role in The English Patient, Thomas’ mere presence as the venomous Crystal makes it uncomfortable for on-screen characters and viewers alike. But even as her acid spitting dialogue is tasteless, these scenes crackle with wry humor. Watch out for the scene where Julian brings his prostitute-girlfriend to the dinner table. And then there is Pansringarm’s Chang, whose main job is dishing out the film’s most brutal scenes thanks to a well concealed weapon of choice. Except for some mistimed karaoke scenes, Pansringarm has hardly anything to say and his Chang appears to be in some sort of trance, but this character turns out to be the brute force we expected from Gosling.

Despite a disappointing story that begins and ends in obscurity, Only God Forgives had me clamped to my seat because almost every scene is hypnotic in nature. Using ambient lighting from neon-lit saturation of primary colors, Larry Smith’s cinematography is nothing short of aesthetic brilliance. Refn uses this in long takes, both static and sweeping, to create introspective expressions on key characters. On par with the cinematography is the atmospheric score from Cliff Martinez – an electronic fusion of pent up energy reverberating through some of the best scenes in the film and essentially giving the narrative its dark tone. All this boils down to how this film is perceived. If you have ‘acquired a taste’ for Refn’s movies, there is the possibility that you will find this movie intriguing. If not, you will lose the plot right from the start.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.