Only God Forgives is a new film by Nicolas Winding Refn whose previous work includes the underground hit Drive and the Tom Hardy lead Bronson. Refn’s films are often abstract and moments of commercial appeal are often snuffed out by his avant-garde storytelling style and knack for dark atmosphere.
Only God Forgives takes place in Bangkok where boxing enthusiast and drug dealer Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, sets out to appease his mother by avenging his recently murdered brother. The synopsis and trailers for this film do a great job of convincing you that you know where the story is going, but Only God Forgives steers clear of convention.
There are many similarities between this and Gosling and Refn’s previous collaboration Drive. Only God Forgives is almost a thematic sequel in some ways. Gosling is again playing a brooding, quiet and dark protagonist. In Drive, Gosling uses violence to solve all his problems. In this film, his character has a violent past, but he’s fighting back every urge to fight or do what he perceives to be wrong.
The little devil on his shoulder takes the form of his mother. Kristin Scott Thomas is almost unrecognizable as Crystal, the un-nurturing mom who reprimands Gosling at every turn. Despite his mother’s button-pushing and belittling, he does his best to stay loyal and obey her bloodthirsty commands.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang expertly with a level of quiet dread and calm that is reminiscent of a silent Hannibal Lecter. Though, as the film progresses, his true role seems to reveal itself. The director himself attaches the idea of being “God” upon this character. He’s a sort of ethereal omnipresent judge.
The script itself is bare. On the page, the characters are all two-dimensional. The story is nonexistent. Everything comes to life through the actions and very subtle performances of the top notch cast as well as through Larry Smith’s cinematography. The silent scenes say much more than the ones filled with dialog. The pacing is very slow and very intentional. The oversaturated lighting and use of slow-motion brings this film out of reality and makes its metaphors much easier to dissect and understand.
The atmospheric score by Cliff Martinez could barely be classified as music. It is instead a soundscape of swelling noise and slowly pulsating synthesizers. It breathes for the characters and works wonderfully with the visual style and tempo of the film. There’s a great POV shot of the camera slowly leeching toward Gosling as the sound of a mechanical chain-like grinding gets louder and closer until Chang is revealed. These sorts of moments happen often throughout the film.
Refn dedicated the film to Jodorowsky whose films, such as El Topo, are equally as contemplative and brutal. Those who come into this film demanding a fast-paced brutal revenge film are going to be unhappy with the resulting film, but if you go in with no expectations, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the film’s direction and dark beauty.
I give Only God Forgives 4 “Black-eyed Goslings” out of 5.
by Matt Glass