Only God Forgives Movie Review
In 2011, writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn gave us the phenomenal stylistic neo-noir film DRIVE. As one of my favorite films of the year, it was with great anticipation that I awaited Refn’s next directing effort. While it may be unfair to expect the same greatness as before, I did hope to see another compelling story told through precise direction. ONLY GOD FORGIVES once more showcases Nicolas Winding Refn as a very capable director with deliberate motives, however to say his content might be a bit out of touch for most audiences to completely get behind would be a huge understatement.
Once again starring the subtly brilliant Ryan Gosling, ONLY GOD FORGIVES takes us down a dark and seedy world where unspeakable acts of sexual behavior, gruesome violence and all around evil characters run wild. While I personally, as I guess others will agree, don’t find this to be a world I care to explore, Refn examines a glimpse with a steady hand that uses methodical movement and a tensely driven score.
Set in the underbelly of Bankok, ONLY GOD FORGIVES follows Julian (Ryan Gosling) a manager of a Thai-boxing club that acts as a cover for an illegal drug operation. After Julian’s older brother and partner is deservedly murdered for brutally killing an underaged prostitute, their offensively evil mother (a role aggressively attacked with villainous zeal by Kristin Scott Thomas) forces her hand into the situation. Her hateful attitude toward her living son is set to provoke Julian into taking vengeance for his dead brother. However, the man behind the murder is a lethal police chief (Vithaya Pansringarm) who should not be taken lightly.
What I like about Refn’s direction is how he chooses to show who our characters are rather than tell us, not only through their actions but also through lighting and composition. The blues and reds are more than just a pretty vision but also reveal a heaven and hell juxtaposition. Early on the lighting stripes across Julian’s face visually appear as prison bars to how he feels internally. In another scene rays of light stretch out over the back of his his head, similar to elongated fingers tightening their grip. Hands are a common theme, not just in the use of Thai-boxing, but also how the camera lingers on them tied up or released by either withholding or causing violence, usually due to sexual motivation.
The problem, understandably, for most audiences will be that none of these characters are particularly likable nor are their actions pleasing to view. In fact, they’re downright despicable. I too usually don’t like films that follows the lowlifes (BAD LIEUTENANT), but I found myself strangely enamored not by the subject manner but how Nicolas Winding Refn tells the story. In a sort of a role reversal, the film sets up with the villainous family as the protagonists and the violent unorthodox lawman as the antagonist who in other films might have been our hero. The film mostly follows Ryan Gosling’s Julian who barely speaks and is only halfway likable because he chooses not to act on his sexual and violent urges… all the time.
Carefully crafting themes alluding to the vicious cycle of molestation, incest and violence through the Oedipus complex, perhaps the most uncomfortable scene is void of any physical brutality at all. When Julian brings a prostitute as his date to dinner with his venomous mother, the disturbing revelation rivals the frightening dinner scene in 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
I won’t argue with those who despise ONLY GOD FORGIVES, as the film is difficult to get behind and recommend. However, like a Stanley Kubrick film, I found myself hypnotized by its beauty and compelled to watch the disturbing behavior all over again. I believe the title is the key to look at the film more deeply as an allegory toward redemption. ONLY GOD FORGIVES suggests that no one will find redemption without seeking God. As these characters clearly do not seek God, it might be safe to assume they are all not forgiven for their horrendous actions and that is why torment and doom is destined to reign upon them. One might also perceive the police chief as a vengeful god who distributes punishment in an eye for an eye mentality towards these sinful acts.
Perhaps it is within the unapologetic direction from Nicolas Winding Refn, that I want to peel back the layers of an otherwise distasteful rotten banana. But this leads me to appreciate and savor that little bite of nutritiousness so much more. One might argue that it’s not worth the trouble and that is probably ONLY GOD FORGIVES biggest downfall. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the discovery of a story told through deliberate direction that few films do so effectively.