Only God Forgives * * * *
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Byron Gibson.
After the success of “Drive” in 2011, another collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling was highly anticipated. Now that we are delivered the results with “Only God Forgives“, many have been left disappointed and, from many corners, it has received very harsh criticism. It doesn’t possess the postmodern cool of their previous effort but what it does have, is art house and depth written all over it.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a US ex-pat living in Bangkok, where he runs a Mauy Thai boxing club and a family drug business behind the scenes. Things begin to go wrong, though, when his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed with the involvement of local police Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). This, in turn, brings the arrival of Julian’s sadistic mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge her first born’s death. Julian soon realises that they are up against someone who will not be stopped.
For some, this will be a sumptuous five star experience while others will (understandably) criticise it for it’s perceived pretension and ambiguity. It’s a very difficult film to rate and I can’t give it any less than I have, simply because I do believe that there’s substance contained within. The plot summary above, makes it all sound very straight forward but it’s far from that. If truth be told, I didn’t entirely understand it but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. That’s a fault that rests with me rather than the filmmaker and I think this is the problem that many people are criticising it for – not to mention, Gosling fans’ annoyance at his distinct lack of dialogue.
Anyone familiar with Winding Refn movies, will quickly realise that this type of filmmaking is actually the norm for him and much closer to his idiosyncratic style than “Drive” ever was. It’s filled with symbolism, metaphors and spirituality and categorically, it simply isn’t the action movie that most viewers were expecting. Credit has to be given to Winding Refn and Gosling for their bravery here. They refuse to try and recreate their previous magic and deliver a whole new experience. There are others deserving of mention here too, Larry Smith’s spellbinding cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and entirely authentic in capturing both the beauty and the beast of the city of Bangkok, while Cliff Martinez evokes a foreboding score. The biggest revelation, though, is a bleach-blonde, foul mouthed, Kristin Scott Thomas as the dangerous matriarch Crystal, where every time she’s onscreen she absolutely chews it up. It’s an outstanding, against-type, performance from the once (“Four Weddings and a Funeral“) English rose. Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang is also worthy of note with his cold, supernatural, god-like, approach and wielding his own form of justice with the aid a samurai sword that he keeps on his person. He can be seen as the phallus to Scott Thomas’ yonis, leaving the lost and soulful Gosling with an Oedipal complex and dreamlike imaginings of castration – symbolically represented by the loss of his hands. Events don’t exactly make sense on a first time viewing but this is a film that demands repeated efforts to fully capture it’s themes. It has the similar surrealist approaches of directors David Lynch and more importantly Alejandro Jodorowsky (to whom the film is dedicated) and there’s no questioning Refn’s stylistic abilities.
Is it for everyone? Most certainly not, but it will appeal to those who enjoy uncompromising, art-house minimalism and don’t rely on a storyline where everything is linear and readily explained. It’s ambitious and experimental and you probably won’t see a more polarising film all year.