Review: Only God Forgives

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The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are a combination of breathtaking beauty and blinding brutality. The Danish director has no intentions of conforming to formula or playing towards audience expectations, and his latest is very much in this wheelhouse. While often ravishing and occasionally exceeding in style over substance, Only God Forgives ultimately descends into a hellish spiral of violence, stripping any subtlety it hopes to retain.

Refn’s primary introduction to American audiences came in 2011 with the sizzling Drive, a western set in contemporary Los Angeles with a European flair. Indeed, Refn marches to the beat of his own drum. With Only God Forgives, he crosses over the Pacific to Bangkok, taking the western archetypes and Ryan Gosling with him. In the film, Gosling plays Julian, the co-owner of a Thai boxing club, along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy is murdered for committing a heinous crime, Julian’s mother, Crysal (Kristin Scott Thomas), flies in to collect the body and seek vengeance. The responsibility falls upon Julian to find his brother’s killer, and he quickly discovers that a cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) by the name of Chang is behind the death. What follows is a relentlessly bloody battle between two forces, with Refn’s rapturous visuals in full bloom.

Even more than his previous efforts, Only God Forgives is light on plot and character development, but this should come as no surprise to those familiar with Refn’s work. For the eagle eyed viewer, what the film does have in abundance is story, and implications of the relationships between characters. Very little is outright spoken, but much can be inferred from the exchanges between Julian and Crystal, or even the brief glimpses of the cop with his family. All of the performances are fine, especially Scott Thomas’ bloodthirsty, scenery chewing mother and the intimidating stoicism of Pansringarm’s Chang. That said, none of the characters may be entirely likable or relatable, but Only God Forgives develops a sense of respect for them. This kind of formal distance works to brilliant effect in the film’s first half, which also plays into Refn’s occasional forays into altering reality. However, once the film arrives at a juncture following an assassination attempt upon Chang, it quickly becomes gut wrenching in its depiction of violence. Furthermore, Refn sets up expectations for certain events in Only God Forgives but then turns in another direction. In some cases, this works well, but the film’s ending is less than satisfactory.

If Drive was a divine marriage of eroticism and violence, then Only God Forgives shows the blasphemous rape of the two. This is not entirely a knock on the film, for there are an abundance of moments in the film’s first half that come close to matching the suggestive brilliance of its LA cousin. Refn’s talent for allowing images to speak for themselves remains vital, and a plethora of shots composed and lit by cinematographer Larry Smith are truly intoxicating. The pacing of scenes is intentionally deliberate and allows for hidden textures to come to the fore, but soon the subtlety dissipates as the killing escalates. The body count in this film isn’t especially surprising, but Only God Forgives seems to relish displaying the freshly blood soaked corpses. What initially captivates instead becomes repulsive and mindless, but indeed this might be Refn’s point. By traveling an ocean away, Only God Forgives is in many ways familiar, fascinating territory, but its gradual deterioration risks complete alienation.

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~ by romancinema on July 22, 2013.

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