As a warning to viewers familiar only with Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous crowd-and-critic pleaser (but tragically under-nominated) Drive and the star of both films (Fuck Yeah) Ryan Gosling, many critics will describe Only God Forgives as “challenging.” They will try to prepare them for a style of abstract, visceral filmmaking that is rarely seen today.
While that’s partially the case, calling it a “challenge” undersells the film and misrepresents its intentions. It implies that there’ll be some sort of reward for viewing it the “right” way—that its purpose is to present the audience with obstacles to overcome, to tease them along the way to its emotional core.
Only God Forgives presents no such challenge because it is not seeking your approval.
It doesn’t set up audience expectations so that it can then defy them; it makes you feel silly for having them in the first place. After all, this is the same director who followed Bronson with Valhalla Rising with Drive, films that share some stylistic similarities—quiet and meditative, punctuated with brutality—but are, thematically, quite different.
The plot, such that it is, sees Gosling as Julian, an American drug dealer living in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). The two operate out of a Muay Thai gym. Billy is better suited to the criminal life than Julian, who is sentimental and has not lost all of his scruples. Their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose performance alone is worth the price of admission), is a terrifyingly foul, manipulative, vindictive ringleader who arrives in Thailand after a very serious transgression.
This causes a rift in the family’s sense of unity and brings the honorable but brutal Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) into their lives.
But Only God Forgives isn’t a story. It is emotions, and rarely pleasant ones.
Refn doesn’t so much reinterpret a genre of film as he’s done in the past—Drive as a noir film with trappings of the 1980s, Bronson as a biopic in the style of A Clockwork Orange—so much as he assumes the role of a genre of filmmaker; in this case, Alejandro Jodorowsky and other avant-garde directors of Europe of the 1960s and ’70s.
The influence is often direct, with the many barebones, abstract sets through which Julian roams heavily reminiscent of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. There is a great deal of violence, but it’s treated as a manifestation of emotions and values rather than a literal person killing or maiming another person. Lt. Chang severs a great many arms, but not because he’s heartless or badass.
Call him Death, Justice, Karma; he’s a force of nature.
He never fails to catch up with a person who has transgressed.
Rather than aping the external layer of his influences a la Tarantino, Refn begins with the core of what made Jodorowsky films great and gives his film its own identity. At its best, Only God Forgives is gripping, even if it’s not entirely clear why. At its worst, it plays like a stylistic exercise, albeit from someone with terrific style. The emotions portrayed are very deep and visceral—forgiveness, Oedipal issues, abandonment—and are well represented. It’s meticulously shot and edited with an excellent score from Cliff Martinez. The juxtapositions are obvious, but effective;
the violence is calming and symbolic, while the dialogue is harsh and alienating.
When a character screams for mercy or rambles in desperation, all we hear is the score with no dialogue, while a person’s slow footsteps are always loud and discomforting.
So will you like it? That’s entirely up to you and whether you respond to filmmaking of this kind.
But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES | R | OPENS 7.19.13 | COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE