ONLY GOD FORGIVES Review

Only God Forgives is something of an unexpected twist on the artistic yet undeniably entertaining quality of the previous collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling. That the twist is more on the artistic aspect while almost completely dismissing the entertainment value is more of the unexpected turn. I have yet to dig further into Refn's filmography than Drive and his 2008 feature Bronson, but am interested to see how Valhalla Rising ties into the clear influence his previous work has played in the development of this latest picture. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect from Only God Forgives given it was booed at its Cannes premiere yet won top prize at the Sydney Film Festival just over a month ago. Clearly these reactions are just as subjective as anything I'm writing here, but the divisive nature of the reception the film is receiving does stand to say something for the effect it is having on people. With that question in mind, that loaded curiosity of what made this film so appealing to some and completely pointless to others I walked into the theater with an open mind and willingness to accept whatever Refn might be trying to say, even if it was trying too hard or putting all of its effort in unexpected areas. Walking out of the film though if anything was clear it was that Refn had done exactly what he wanted to do and had been completely uncompromising in meeting his vision for this product. Through all of the technical aspects that are so expertly fashioned though, is there anything to see? Are there any characters here that we are made to care about? What is it about this film that should make us like it? The answer is nothing and Refn doesn't care because he is doing things how he wants them done. He is completely in your face with the violence while being reserved when it comes to emotional weight. There isn't an ounce of humanity in the majority of the characters yet surprisingly, as the credits began to roll, I was more satisfied than I ever expected. This is a mixed bag that doesn't reach the heights its aspirations were clearly aiming for, but it is a very distinct film and like its director, isn't apologizing for what it wants to be.

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) wines and dines before she seeks revenge.
To say the film is bold would be an understatement. And to understand what it is trying to say is to look past the simplified story the film presents us with. In the most basic of terms this is a revenge movie. Ryan Gosling plays Julian who, as the son of Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), runs her drug smuggling business for her in Bangkok while covering it up by running a Thai boxing club. Julian only handles some of the business and seems to keep a good amount of the boxing club business on track while his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) heads up the majority of things on the other side. This is all well and good until it is made clear Billy has some serious issues he needs to deal with and does so by going out one night and killing a 16 year-old prostitute. The police naturally respond to this murder as led by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who allows the young girls father into the room where his daughters body lies and Billy sits next to it. Chang instructs him to "do what he wants" with him and so he wastes no time in beating Billy to a pulp. Still, even after this Chang is not finished but also takes the girls father and punishes him for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute in the first place. It is when Crystal shows up in Bangkok (who Scott Thomas makes an absolute nightmare by camping it up and insinuating the disgusting) that things begin to get complicated as she wants to feel justified for the loss of her first born son while Julian attempts to explain things are not as simple as they seem. Julian has already had a visit with the man who killed his brother and let him live, but his mothers plans don't include being as lenient thus setting Chang on their trail once again. This sets in motion the back and forth between Chang and Julian as they begin their slowly paced, but beautifully lit collision course towards one another. While this story is on one level very basic and straightforward Refn uses the way he shoots the film as an attempt to make his audience meditate and see something more than skin deep.

As Julian, Gosling does little that we haven't seen before. He is a solid statuette of a man who barely speaks and has a confused sense of allegiance. He is accustomed to taking every order from his mother and not questioning her on any aspect. Whether this is due to the Oedipus-like complex both he and his mother exude whenever they come within close proximity of one another or not is up for debate, but this odd loyalty Julian has for his mother is what fuels the ultimate conflict that is brought to a head in bloody hand to hand combat. The problem with all of this artsy talk of subtle meanings and shot composition emphasis is that it doesn't really add up to much emotional weight. This may come as a result of the fact we don't ever become invested in the characters at play here. I go into a movie and I hope to have an experience where I can put myself in the position of at least one character on screen and get a sense for what is going on, what I might do given their predicament and the circumstances set up by the writers while hoping to gain some knowledge about a world I may not be normally accustomed to. Only God Forgives has plenty of opportunity to capitalize on these opportunities and has countless avenues on which it could allow the audience into its world, but that is not Refn's objective. What that objective is, I couldn't really tell you, but what I took away was a kind of study on innocence vs. experience with Chang serving as an all-knowing mediator between the two worlds. This is displayed clearly when Refn transitions from a shot of Chang's daughter cuddling her stuffed animal while she speaks of making sure he avoids trouble any further by "talking nicely to each other." That Refn decides to include this line in his limited dialogue already gives it a significant amount of importance so when he transitions to a short shot of Chang considering his daughters simple theories and then onto one of Julian washing his hands hands as if trying to cleanse himself of the brutal experience he's been forced to deal with. It's no coincidence this scene also immediately precedes Julian's first meeting with his mother after she arrives. Making it almost impossible for Julian to remain innocent of everything.

Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and Julian (Ryan Gisling) in Only God Forgives.
While I can't say I necessarily enjoyed this movie I can't say that I wasn't intrigued by it. I went in expecting to root for Gosling's character, for him to be our main protagonist, but instead and as I mentioned earlier we don't really find ourselves siding with anyone here. If we had to decide it would likely be Chang rather than Julian as he is the more equal force that is at least attempting to right all the wrongs done in the little corner of the world he has been assigned to protect. This off-kilter set of expectations isn't what irritated me most (though I'll admit it was only irritating because it went against my expectations, which is not a good reason at all) but instead, what bothered me most about the entire experience of Only God Forgives is the amount of missed opportunity. There is brutal violence, beautiful cinematography that drapes everything in intense, red light that gives off the feeling we are in hell making the often repeated statement, "time to meet the devil," all the more effective. The undercurrent of neon though balances this evil out and gives us hope for something positive on the horizon, but despite the film being a precisely calculated puzzle (especially in its technical aspects) that fits together with no roughing of the edges we are left with a hollow experience. An easily dismissive style over substance experiment. The problem with that is that its clear the film is trying to be more than that, that it does indeed have something to say it just doesn't handle its thesis well enough to really get its point across. Refn would like for their to be serious weight behind his mostly silent scenes that have characters lingering in certain positions under just the right light, he would hope for the blood stained walls and the shots of long hallways and alleyways to give us a depth that the film otherwise lacks.

I wanted to at least try and get a sense of what Refn was hoping to accomplish with his follow-up to Drive, he is a unique filmmaker with a singular vision and that should certainly be promoted to do whatever it feels he might like to try and I can't blame him for pushing the envelope here, but sometimes experiments don't work out the way we expect. It is clear this is what Refn wanted to make though and I can only imagine the directors commentary might be a more entertaining viewing experience than the actual film. This is disappointing to come to terms with, but I can only have optimistic feelings towards anything the director decides to do in the future as we have at least been assured he will always push boundaries and be unwilling to compromise for anyone, even the detractors of this film.