Only God Forgives (2013)
(18) Running time: 89 minutes
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish
The best way to start this review is to clear up all those thoughts of a Drive 2 being delivered here by the director and star of Drive. Yes Only God Forgives see’s director Nicolas Winding Refn teaming up again with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, and yes Only God Forgives features an ultra cool soundtrack, and oh yes Gosling’s character barely mutters a word, and as expected there is plenty of violence here. However, that is the ONLY comparisons there are, and Only God Forgives is a totally different film from Drive, TOTALLY. The baffling Cannes walk-outs and boos I can only assume came from audience members expecting a new Drive film, because violence in films at Cannes is no big shocker, so I don’t get why people would have walked out because of this (although there are a number of scenes here which are bordering on sadistic). If Only God Forgives needs comparison, then I would say the tone, pacing and style is much more like the superb Valhalla Rising, and if you enjoyed that fantastic film, then you will adore this.
Sadly though, I feel Only God Forgives will push Refn back into his comfortable world of arthouse cinema fans, and this will certainly not push him back into the big leagues like Drive did. There is a target audience for this, but it is not the wider range audience that enjoyed Drive, or even Bronson. Only God Forgives will only appeal to a select few, so if you are relatively new to Refn’s film, then approach with caution. If you have been a fan of the Danish director since 1996’s excellent Pusher, then you are in for one hell of a treat here!
By now you should know the setup, but I shall give you a quick reminder anyway. Gosling plays Julian, a drug dealing boxing club owner living in Bangkok, and commanding a dangerous crew of heavies. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) is a loose cannon, and in a drunken rage rapes and kills a teenage prostitute, and this brings the sinister cop Chang (Pansringarm), otherwise known as The Angel of Vengeance, into the fold. Billy is murdered, which prompts Julian’s mother Crystal (Scott Thomas) to head to Bangkok ordering that Billy’s killer be brought to justice. A drawn out tale of revenge, realisation and self loathing ensues, and the almost dreamlike film drifts in and out of different emotions, violence and tension filled set pieces before coming to its nasty and slightly baffling ending. If you pondered over Valhalla Rising for far too long (as I have), and still can’t quite work it out after multiple viewings, then you can expect much of the same here.
You could argue that Only God Forgives has little meaning, and is simply Refn letting his artistic talent run free, but there is heavy intent, and far too much lingering and revelation-like moments to warrant this film being as empty as it may seem on first viewing. There is plenty of depth to the characters, and even though they say very little, their feelings spill out of them as if they have just met God. The film plods along at a slow, hypnotic pace with a truly dazzling array of musical numbers which heighten tension, or add to the hypnosis. The music could easily be the winning formula here, had the rest of the film not been as stunning as it is. Refn wins hands down as a director who conjures up thoughts of early Argento and Lynch in his baffling array of torturous moments of confusion, and Refn himself has said that the film is his personal homage to the great Alejandro Jodorowsky, and it shows. Also the films cinematographer delivers stunning scene after stunning scene, and uses (as Argento mastered) primary colours to their full, and almost blinding effect.
The cast all deliver inch perfect performances, but strangely Gosling almost feels like a bystander to Refn’s style, and he is even dominated by the two driving forces of this masterpiece, Scott Thomas and the relatively unknown Pansingarm. Scott Thomas is vile, evil and horrific as Julian’s vengeance filled Mother, and while the transformation of Scott Thomas is one of the most frightening things you will see on screen all year, her character is likely to make you feel utterly shocked with the bile that bellows from her mouth. I won’t repeat any here, but boy is she horrible, and a meeting with Julian’s pretend girlfriend is astonishingly rude. Then there is Pansingarm as the mysterious cop called Chang, or The Angel of Vengeance. He mutters no more than a few words throughout the entire film, but when he gets up on stage singing karaoke he lets rip. The karaoke scenes are baffling, and I can only describe them as stripping back his violent outer shell and showing an almost sweet innocence inside. The audience are motionless while he sings, paused, so the spotlight is on him totally as he enjoys himself. This violent, brutal man comes across as completely different, a million miles from the bushido blade carrying Angel of Vengeance. Chang is a fascinating character who walks around with an almost childlike look about him: arms not moving and facial expression not changing at all. However, when he delivers his version of justice, that childlike look and expressionless face become a terrifying look of a cold hearted and driven man who will do anything to uphold the law.
Chang is the man who delivers one of the most brutal torture scenes seen in movies for years, and it is a scene which is guaranteed to have even the hardest of film fans wince in pain. Coming out of nowhere, Pansingarm has delivered an astonishing performance. But let’s not forget Gosling himself, who delivers an equally great performance of a tortured soul, forced to do violent things by his over powering mother. Julian too seems emotionless and cold, but there is a deep rooted trauma inside, and every now and then it rears its head in anger. Julian also see’s Chang quite often in the mirror, which hints at a possible guilty conscience, paranoia or even Chang being the Devil himself, here to dish out justice to bad people. The characters are all intriguing in their own way, but none are likeable, and Only God Forgives is filled with bad people, which brilliantly leads to an ending where you believe anything can happen, and you will have no idea who comes out on top.
This is Refn flaunting with his skills, and playing with his audience, and for me, feels like his way of getting back into his more comfortable role of an arthouse director after the dizzying heights of popularity he gained from Drive. Here is Refn delivering a film for his core audience, his long standing fans, and by using Gosling again, could be his way of showing his new found audience exactly what he is all about. It is a brave, ballsy move which might not pay off, but for the dedicated Refn fans, Only God Forgives is yet another masterpiece.