Only God Forgives, Review
Only God Forgives is a lush observance to Refn's holy trinity of Sex, Violence and Cinema.
As its premiere to the world (at Cannes Film Festival, where Drive was discovered in 2011) came with a scandal of boos, it seems especially necessary to roll up one’s sleeves in defense of Only God Forgives. There is nothing that can explain such a poor reception from a previous audience of admirers other than shameful ignorance, especially for a director with so many damn good films to his name from before the time of Drive, complete with equally superb performances and cinematography. Even worse than the admittance of missing out on good films, such seems like a confession to not understanding why Drive is such a strong movie. It is not the moments in which heads go splat-splat or a tricky scene of motor maneuvering; it is the lush atmosphere of tone that creates for such film joys, granted ones that play against the expectations of genres themselves. Placing us into an omnipotent point of view, Only God Forgives plays out like the title deity’s own recollection of a memory. In underground Bangkok, ex-American Julian (Gosling) runs a Muay Thai boxing business, where he trains and makes money off fighters with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy is killed in cold blood for murdering a hooker, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok and urges her son to find the killer (a sword-wielding cop named Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm). This begins a cycle of killings that lead Julian and Chang to a boxing match. In his second role for Refn, Gosling again plays handsomely into the director’s particular vision of who the perfect protagonist should be. Like Tom Hardy’s Charles Bronson in Bronson, Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in Valhalla Rising or Gosling’s previous Driver character, Julian is a rebellious outsider with a mysterious background. Gosling explores the character with brooding restraint, like a seeming marionette trapped in the impulsive atmosphere that Refn creates. In Only God Forgives, Gosling can be gentle, treading through these hallways like he is protective of them, but in certain moments will explode with shocking rage. As Julian carries the same angst as previous Refn lead creations, he also carries many of the same flaws. Refn is clearly drawn to a type of masculine protagonist, but continues to be too stubborn to unravel them. Instead, he uses them most of all as genre set pieces who are spruced up by the inherent charisma brought in from their portrayers, especially with his more wordless heroes like One-Eye, Driver or now Julian. In this regard, another Gosling role that is light on dialogue proves fairly serviceable to the movie and not only because Refn can get people in seats on the promise of seeing Gosling’s spectacular face on the big screen alone. The presence of Gosling, especially in this movie, provides a diversion; we can turn to him for the familiar when things get too weird, weirder than they ever did in Drive. But the joy to be found in this movie, as expressed directly by Refn, is the removal of this star’s safety blanket from moviegoers. With the look of a side character who somehow managed a bigger role, Vithaya Pansringarm and the devastating blade he carries on his back present the film’s element of intense samurai justice. Shown singing ballads at karaoke on at least three occasions, he is a fitful embodiment of how this movie deals with genre tropes. Even when his moments might be considered cheesy, he compels us with his darkness, our physical language paralyzed to simply watch. His performance is nothing like Albert Brooks in Drive, but at the same time, it is surely not meant to be. Perhaps Refn shows his strongest awareness of playing against Drive expectations with the carefully selected soundtrack, using the same composer as that film, but consciously diverting from using an electronic score. Bits of Cliff Martinez’s score even begin to hint at the primary arrangement of drum machines or synths, but soon change direction before any correlation can be made. Refn turns out to be quite the tease with these bits, especially in his authorship of very familiar scenes of violence that are carried out to dance hall music, or even in dance halls themselves. (This movie’s soundtrack, instead of offering more future cult hits like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” only provides viewers with Thai pop ballads, as performed in the karaoke scenes.) Lined by a slow narrative that complements Refn’s emotional breaks, the film is a rich piece of ambience; images memorable in their beauty, brutality or equal amounts of the two. With its wholly wonderful cinematography the film recognizes its most crucial element of soaking up its stylized atmosphere, as conveyed in the pensive footsteps of characters as they lead us on a tour through Refn’s dark hallways or the numerous shots that photographs subjects like they are landscapes. As calm as this film may function, with even its characters looking like they walk in slow motion, this is a movie that is so tangible with its imagery that even long after the film is over, its vamping moments linger on the viewer. Only God Forgives is a film that exists in the art house universe or, as Doug Benson likes to call it, “the cinema.” With Refn as the god over his characters and their environments, characters operate more like movie beings than human beings, as if they are constantly waiting for a standoff to happen, even if no one else in the room. For a director who claims to have no storyboards for his films, Refn is in complete control of his characters and environments, like they are action figures; when a character is not being used, they remain still. Sitting quietly, and observing, mirroring the physicality of watching a movie itself. If the picture is playfully pretentious, then such is only the celebration of another element of Refn’s auteurship, a director who has even made an impromptu brand out of his initials, as seen in his credit sequences. Like those films, Only God Forgives is an observance of Refn’s holy trinity of sex, violence and cinema that one wishes would play on for hours and hours. Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars