Only God Forgives: ★★★
'Time to meet the Devil' reads the tagline for Drive-team Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's latest collaboration, Only God Forgives. The film’s tagline, and its title for that matter, very explicitly reveals the film’s Old Testament, wrath of God-style nature. This is not a traditional, dialogue-driven film. This is first and foremost a parable on sin and punishment, where the darkest traits of humanity are explored, and where everyone must atone for their wickedness. Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club in Bangkok, though the club is a front for the drug trafficking business run by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas). His brother Billy (Tom Burke) is a despicable piece of shit who gets off on raping and beating young girls. When Billy eventually kills a 16 year old prostitute, the sword-wielding Policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is called to the scene and administers his own brand of righteous justice by allowing the girl’s father to pummel Billy into red chunks. Think that’s the end of it? Chang’s not satisfied until the father is made to atone for his shitty parenting skills. In this world, no one escapes judgment. Crystal flies into town to view what’s left of her firstborn child’s corpse, and she’s mad as hell that Julian has done nothing to avenge his brother. Julian knows that the scumbag got what he deserved, but his mother, being just as twisted and ruthless as her deceased son once was, adored Billy and sets in motion a series of events to get her revenge on the cop that took him away. Unfortunately for Julian, that means getting dragged into a situation he doesn’t want to be in - one that will send him on a collision course with Chang, the ‘angel of vengeance’.
In Drive, Gosling played a quiet, heroic man that adhered to a code. While not exactly a moral code, he was a character that fiercely believed in right and wrong. Most of those same characteristics apply to the character of Julian, albeit with a few key differences. For starters, he’s even quieter; Gosling’s dialogue in the film would struggle to fill a couple of cue cards. If you already had a problem with the ‘man of few words’ approach that he displayed in Drive, then you’re out of luck here. He isn’t much a hero in this film either. While he is a man of certain morals, he’s far from being an unstoppable badass. If it were up to him, he’d sit this whole thing out entirely. Julian knows he deserves punishment for past transgressions, as well as his current lifestyle. He’s a sad, guilt-filled man, whose sexual encounters involve being tied to a chair as a spectator while imagining himself being mutilated for getting too close. He has the capacity to commit sudden acts of brutal violence, but it’s usually with a forced hand from his domineering and terrifying mother. Julian displays a very clear Oedipal Complex, likely spurned on by Crystal’s sexual taunting from a young age. During dinner conversation, his mother openly tells Julian’s date about his penis envy towards his brother. “Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s…. oh it was enormous! How do you compete with that?”
Kristin Scott-Thomas has the most talkative role in the film, and is exceptional playing against type as a woman whose blood must consist mostly of snake venom. While her character is a ghastly human being, Scott-Thomas is able to imbue Crystal with a wounded sense of vulnerability, as if she knows how heinous she is but can’t help herself. The standout in the film however, is Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang, a character with an almost mystical presence that hovers over the entire film, threatening to cut our characters down when they step out of line. If it’s only God that forgives, then Chang is his messenger and deliverer of judgment, an insane, but divine being that is driven by his warped sense of right and wrong. Many will find the film alienating. Its sparse dialogue, slow-burn nature, darkness, oppressive atmosphere and numerous karaoke scenes will not be everyone’s cup of tea. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that the film is a piece of art, an uncompromising vision formed by its director for the purposes of expression. Like any ambitious artwork, Only God Forgives is not to be universally adored. In fact, I’d go as far as saying mainstream audiences will hate this film. They will loathe it with a burning passion. For one who isn’t interesting in cinema as an art form, the film will be completely inaccessible. However, that people’s opinions are so diametrically opposed when it comes to the film is a sign of its power to create a strong reaction. Many film critics have become accustomed to making snap judgements on artworks, publishing insta-reviews dictated by deadlines as if there isn’t room to ponder and interpret a film after viewing it. There’s closed-mindedness in this box office-obsessed, Rotten Tomatoes-age of film criticism that seeks to punish audacity in cinema. Only God Forgives has bore the brunt of this head on, with tabloid-esque ‘disaster’ headlines and surface-level analyses that do the artist, the film and the practice of film criticism a great disservice. Art isn’t binary. It defies categories like ‘awesome’ or ‘terrible’.
Now this film is also not perfect, as most works of art are not. It is flawed in some key areas, which I attribute to Refn, the director. He’s said himself that’s he’s a fetish filmmaker, and some of his fetishes compromise the pounding resonance of Only God Forgives. Refn loves violence, he loves bloody torture scenes, and that’s all good and fine. Cinema can often be an outlet for the darkest of temptations that creep their way through our thoughts. Take Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever for example, a definite fetish film, made for a half a million dollars in the woods somewhere. Roth and Refn use the same prolonged gory violence in their films, but while Roth is creating nasty, hilarious, and bitingly exciting exploitation, Refn is meditating on the human capacity to commit unspeakable evil. There is a way to cinematically display brutality so it’s brutal. A few of Refn’s torture-porn scenes stretch too long, and become not only tiresome but a bit silly. In Drive, the violence was quick and shocking. Here it is much different, understandably so, but it doesn’t work, which is a big blow to the film’s success, considering how much the idea of violence is tied into what this film is attempting to accomplish. This; however, does not completely vanquish the poignance of Only God Forgives. Refn’s film is still a shattering work of genius. His bizarre, infernal creation will stick with you. Each scene is executed with pure formal brilliance. It attains a Kubrickarian level of sensory overload, which for me, was fantastic. Visually, it is the best film of 2013. Color sets the tone, be it deep, depressing blues, or savage and angry reds. The score is also the best you will hear this year. If there is justice, it will become iconic. And if there ever was an essential three-star movie, this is it.