Violence: an element of the human condition often used in films as an exploitative vehicle to coerce a reaction or to deceivingly manipulate the viewer into thinking there is a reason for a character’s irrational actions. Self-defense or pure evil are two very generic usages for the infliction of pain onto others; however, to find haunting beauty in the horrendous capability of mankind to hurt takes a certain vision. That’s exactly what elevates Nicholas Winding Refn’s art to the rank of auteur rather than simply a filmmaker. The Danish director has created a singular cinematic language in a world where being unique is almost impossible, yet, he openly discloses his influences, and pays homage to them in his work.
Ironically, Only God Forgives is unforgiving, unapologetic even. It plays with expectations and disarms them right on the screen, with its vicious carnage, with its neon palette, and with its bold atmospheric punch. Although far less accessible than its successful predecessor Drive, the film fits right within Refn’s universe of poetic gore and characters with ambiguous self-righteous motivations.
This is the story of two brothers and their mother, the conflicts between them, and a God-like outside force that has come to judge them. This oversimplification of the plot might help understand how the layers of style transform the thin narrative into a mesmerizing feast of profound nightmarish beauty.
The set up is as follwos, in the means streets of Bangkok a duo of American brothers run a boxing club as a front for their drug-dealing business. When the older of the two is brutally murdered as retaliation for his own disturbing actions, younger brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) must find and kill whomever is responsible. Their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), is the leader of the criminal organization and demands punishment for her son’s killer. What they don’t know is the man behind it is retired Thai cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who has taken upon himself to cleanse the streets of the chaotic Asian capital. Evidently a marvelous fest of savagery and sexualized violence is what must happen; however, in the hands of Denmark’s latest provocateur it becomes an even more unforgettable drug-induced ride.
Even if it’s hard to forget Gosling and Refn’s previous collaboration, this is not a sequel to that fantastic piece. On the contrary, this is a whole different creature. The actor is different, there is no sense of impending heroism or redemptive sacrifice, this is a tortured man whose soul is infested with guilt and self-destructive tendencies created by his callous mother. Gosling understands this, and he makes of fists a symbol of such hidden pain. His hands have become a lethal weapon not only physically but also for his inability to connect, even when he tries. This is a character with a couple dozen lines, perhaps as quiet as “the driver” but more obscure. He is full of complexity that is only translated into something tangible via his masochistic love for receiving and inflicting harm.
Kristin Scott Thomas simply deserves a standing ovation. She undergoes a complete transformation to become the perverse, almost incestuous villain. Her radiating malice makes even the most vulgar conversation about her sons’ penis sizes into a memorably twisted moment of irreverence. Yet, her character still dares to ask for compassion and tries to dissociate herself from her responsibility in Julian’s actions. The actress blesses the film with an Oscar-worthy performance for the ages, a cult character for years to come.
Mr. Pansringarm is nothing short of brilliant in his own right either. He plays his role with such messianic conviction it is hard to truly classify him as evil; furthermore, the musical numbers he presents create a duality that borders on campy satire but is still surrounded by divine grace. One knows that every time this man uses his blade a merciless punishment is in store.
Winding Refn knocks it out of the park. He has reached a whole new level of artistry by permeating every flawlessly created fluorescent shot with the power of sound, whether it is terrifying silence or the electrifying score by Cliff Martinez. Even the bizarre musical numbers and the film’s anticlimactic conclusion feel at home in the ruthless Thai asphalt jungle. The almost narcotic effect the film creates is the product of the director’s magnificent vision to put together the best of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void, and creating his very unique exercise in stylish grotesquery.
Only God Forgives is a hypnotic dance of color, ethereal sounds, gushing blood, depraved sexual innuendo and lots of intriguing commentary about morality. Surely it will polarized audiences and critics, comparisons will be drawn with the director’s previous films and his notorious influences, still, with as little reservations as the film has to explore its gruesome poetry, there is no fear on this writer’s behalf to call this film an intoxicating masterpiece.
Final Verdict: Nothing can prepare you for the genius that unfolds on screen in Only God Forgives. Some will accuse Refn of making a pretentious vehicle to showcase brutality with no substance. Let them. There is as much existential debate here as there is blood and style. It’s in that strangely alluring balance that his films become fixtures in a viewer’s memory. The film will engulf you into a place where all of Refn’s dark fantasies coexist. Not as raw as Valhalla Rising, not as straightforward as Drive, but as compelling and unique as the first Pusher. Thank you Nicholas Winding Refn, for such a fucking deranged gorgeous delight.