I love attempting to collect my thoughts before a film review only to mutter the phrase “How the f#ck am I supposed to review this film” over and over again. What movie, you ask? Oh, why a little flick called Only God Forgives, which got ferociously booed at Cannes.
There’s honestly a bloody war being waged in my mind right now. On one hand, Nicolas Winding Refn’s second pairing with Ryan Gosling exists as an abstract piece of artwork that absolutely gets a gold star for technique, presentation, ambiance, and every other visual category. On the other hand, Refn takes the minimalistic storytelling utilized in Drive, which critics gobbled up, and strips the skeleton down even further, producing a script that couldn’t have been more than 10 pages. Abysmal story work, exploitative violence, more mute Gosling – yet shot for shot the film was utterly beautiful to watch. WHY DO YOU TORMENT MY EMOTIONS SO, NICOLAS WINDING REFN!
Alright, let me see if I can explain the plot of Only God Forgives in one sentence. I think I can – let’s try.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a well-known drug-smuggler making a lucrative living in Bangkok, but must find and kill the man responsible for his brother’s death to fulfill his mother’s wishes. Yup! There you go. Sure, it’s a little more complicated because the man actually responsible is a retired cop referred to as “The Angel Of Vengeance,” but that’s the name of Refn’s game. Mom flies into Bangkok, she sets Julian loose, and people start dying. Brutally. What’s that? You’re asking about motivations? Character depth? Backstory? Aw, you silly littler viewer, just be quiet and watch the pretty man kill people, OK? *Tousles hair*
I know what Nicolas Winding Refn is attempting to do here. In forcing Gosling to only act through stone-cold emotions, Refn attempts to build a character out of nothing but physical actions. We aren’t in Julian’s head, we’re constantly guessing where his morals actually lay – all we have to go off of are numerous scenes of Gosling staring blankly against a bevy of tantalizing backdrops. Sure, while a challenge among scriptwriters is to see how much of a story can be told with no dialogue, Refn pummels his foe to the point of no return. If you thought Drive showed Gosling playing a character without clear motivation, good luck wrapping your mind around Only God Forgives. There might be all of three scenes where Gosling has more than one word to mutter, while again he just pouts at the camera with that emotionless, drab face. I’m usually not as off-put by an art-house performance like this, but when Julian is running about increasingly dramatic and strange scenarios without even a smidgen of a clear reason, Refn’s “story” seems meaningless.
Kristin Scott Thomas is tasked with playing Gosling’s mother, Crystal, but thankfully Julian’s sealed mouth doesn’t run in the family. Providing us with an actual character to invest in, Crystal proceeds to berate her son with an extremely filthy mouth, showing momentary love and compassion while simultaneously providing the smallest insight into why Julian may act like the disconnected human he’s become. The way Crystal will go from sophisticated to projecting some of the filthiest, dirtiest, most obscene comments possible added a unexpected jolt in the way Refn’s brutally graphic violence did, basically acting as shock value sparks, but I actually enjoyed these moments from Thomas. She was the stick of dynamite Only God Forgives needed, and represented our only look into Julian’s persona – but then Refn got artsy, again.
The entire time, Refn hints at this weird, incestuous relationship between Julian and Crystal at some point (and maybe even Julian’s brother too), but in our writer/director’s true fashion, there’s never a concrete explanation. Trust me, I’m not reading into signals too much either, the evidence is bright as day, but without really dealing with the topic, even in a reveal that was only half as cloudy, zero interest is added to Julian’s story. A creepy and awkward undertone is absolutely added to each scene, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s also an addition of frustration as Refn eluding to something so heinous without reason seems like nothing but a cheap tactic to keep us guessing. This example perfectly explains what Refn is trying to accomplish with Only God Forgives, and also the struggles many people will have while attempting to follow this hot mess.
But like that trashy companion you pick up right before your local bar’s lights come on, there’s something hypnotic about that “hot mess,” which pulls you in like a moth to a bug zapper. You just can’t help yourself. You lay there, doing your thing, questioning everything going on, but you just can’t seem to stop it. Only God Forgives has that same effect, because Refn gussies up his film in a way that promotes Nicolas as one of the defining cinematic voices of our generation. Refn uses the camera as Michelangelo once used a brush, treating each setting and scene as a blank canvas to work with.
Shadows cover our actor’s faces like masks. Pitch black backdrops are used to highlight certain actions. Settings become characters themselves. Lighting filters turn mundane rooms into atmospheric story pieces. Each location appears just as vividly eye-popping as the next. Enchanting musical scoring by collaborator Cliff Martinez pulls us out of Julian’s violent mindset and directly into a completely different emotion – the list goes on.
For as much as Refn frustrates me to no end, I absolutely adore the approach he takes to filmmaking, and the attention he pays to the smallest detail. A room becomes a metaphor for building rage and anger simply because of the red glow Refn uses – which is important because it’s impossible to tell Julian’s emotions just by looking at him.
Oh, and the graphic violence that made people walk out at Cannes? Yeah, I can see where some people walked out, but here’s my problem – don’t we want our filmmakers to deliver the most realistic and gut-belting film possible? Isn’t it the director’s job to make something believable, impressive, and eye-catching? Refn did exactly that, and albeit mercilessly unnerving, never once was I overly offended. Going with Refn’s visual style, his murders were gritty, realistic, and explosive, offering excitement and squirm-worthy tension. I’m more offended that haughty-toity filmmgoers walked into a film and unjustly disrespected its creator in a showing of snobbish elitism. Didn’t everyone see Ryan Gosling stomp a man’s head to bits in Drive?! What the hell did you expect!
Every bit of me wants to not recommend Only God Forgives, because I’m not sure typical audiences will be able to handle Refn’s surrealist experiment, but I think based on creativity, uniqueness, and technical merits alone, any film lover should work a viewing in when possible. You might not love it – hell, you might actually hate it – but Refn’s work deserves an indulgent watch. As long as you can stomach a few scenes that test the boundaries of tasteful Hollywood violence and tacky, over-the-top torture, you might actually love the statement Refn makes about simplicity.
Ryan Gosling does his absolute best given that his lines are about as minimalistic as a cavemen, Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a powerful role despite having the mouth of a sailor, and we learn Vithaya Pansringarm has a talented voice to match his maniacal killing – but I know some people are going to recognize Only God Forgives as an art-house insta-classic created by one of today’s most bombastic, cerebral, ballsy, renegade filmmaking talents. While I love Refn, what he does, and the challenges he sets for himself, I don’t believe Only God Forgives is a game changer in any way. It’s a crazy concept that brings high-intensity wonders, but is lacking cohesion and important connections that audiences need for a meaningful viewing experience.
Even so, I’m still forced to acknowledge that Refn grabbed my attention for an hour and thirty minutes and wouldn’t let me look away out of pure curiosity. Point – Refn.