Denmark / Sweden / Thailand / United States / France
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Release Date: May 22, 2013 (Cannes Film Festival) / July 19, 2013 (United States)
With Only God Forgives Refn and Gosling team up again to tackle religious themes and revenge threads with heavily influenced but unparalleled visual storytelling. The end result is something of a Taxi Driver of the Far East.
My first dive into the films of Nicolas Winding Refn came with Drive in 2011. After winning Refn the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival the film went on to garner the accolades of critics and cinephiles at large. Naturally, I sought out Drive myself to see what all the excited praises were about. While several scenes left me quietly astonished I was somewhat resistant to the overall hype immediately after that first viewing of Drive, but over a couple years it has grown on me like a cool scar. It's a film I'm constantly thinking back on and find even more rewarding when I plug in my own interpretations. It's risen to become a favorite of this new decade..
In the opening credits for Refn's follow-up film, Only God Forgives, we move along the edge of an impressive blade. It's red (from light, not from blood) against a darkened backdrop of fiery waves. Cliff Martinez's score warms up: A slow brooding drum (heart)beats, an instrumental-equivalent of chanting monks fades in, then the smaller and rapid Oriental-staple drum is heard... It all builds to a long church organ note that sounds right out of a haunted house amusement park ride. "This is a horror movie," I told myself. That opening track is called "Only God Forgives" and leads us right to the film's opening title.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) resides in Bangkok, Thailand with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke). They oversee a boxing club which works both as an apparent hobby and a front for a drug smuggling business. These details become almost entirely arbitrary after Billy sets in motion an unyielding chain of sins and punishments beginning with the rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute (only after he couldn't find a 14-year-old). Almost immediately these crimes are brought to the attention of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) of the Thai police who we first see marching up the neighborhood street and into the scene of the crime. Chang allows the girl's father to do what he will with Billy. Afterwards Chang punishes the father for not taking better care of his daughter to begin with. This is a pattern found throughout Only God Forgives: All acts are brought forth to be accounted for, any room in which Chang catches up with characters serve as a court room, though he's the judge, jury and executioner.
The film is primarily split between scenes with Julian and Chang, intersecting the two on more than one occasion. Chang is fearless, always on the alert and seemingly flawless. He's the last man you'd want to cross. Pansringarm has only been in the acting game recently. While Chang himself is worthy of worship, it's Pansringarm's depiction of the lieutenant that makes him so admirable and simply one of the badasses of modern cinema. Julian is an entirely different soul to examine. Half of his scenes are suspended in a hypnagogic limbo. If Chang marshals the space between Heaven and Earth then Julian maunders between Earth and Hell.
One of the many cinematic frame of references you'll hear when describing Only God Forgives is "Kubrickian." There's careful corridor crawls that feel like the beginning of A Clockwork Orange or any number of shots in the The Shining's Overlook Hotel. These are mostly employed in/around Julian's headquarters which feel more like a purgatory the longer we're there. Julian's daymares make for our cinematic nightmares. Chang is the consequence coming down the hall and appearing in the doorways. It's like Dave seeing older versions of himself in the final chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's what many of these surreal and seemingly silent (despite Martinez's offerings) sequences in the film feel most akin to. But instead of the black and white color scheme we dealt with there, we're seeing primarily black and red here.
There are two women is Julian's life: the prostitute Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mai often accompanies Julian during these other worldly moments. Crystal comes to town upon learning of her son's death. Forget Lady Gaga, this woman is the mother monster. Her first question to Julian is "How did you kill him?" (regarding the vengeful father that took Billy's life). Julian explains the complications and how Billy was not (at all) innocent. She shocks us when she responds, "I'm sure he had his reasons." Kristen Scott Thomas knocks the curve ball out of the park. Like Mo'Nique in Precious, she's an unlikely candidate for a menacing matriarch, which makes her all the more effective when she surprises us and pulls it off. Oh, and when the two women in Julian's life converge it is one of the most unfortunate "take you home to meet my mother" scenes in ever told. You can compare these with the two women we see in Chang's life for further contrast.
Larry Smith is the man behind the camera, he has been collaborating with Refn since Fear X (2003). Smith worked on the set of three of Kubrick's last four films before becoming a director of photography for hire. This further explains the influence. He'll be making his own directorial debut in the coming years with Trafficker in which Pansringarm is slated to star. I am ecstatic for that day.
Only God Forgives still has one of the best trailers in years and it's largely due to its photography. The more flashy shots were advertised, including a couple of action sequences in which Chang reigns supreme, but it's the consistent creative framing in the smaller moments that do the heavy lifting. This is a gorgeous piece of cinema. It would have never been nominated for cinematography at the Oscars, but probably should have won. Only God Forgives is ultimately a neo-noir with one foot firmly back in German expressionism. The silhouette of a brutal murder within the red door at the end of a hallway, the aerial viewpoint as two fighters square off in a ring without ropes, and a tracking shot along a lake while Chang conducts his blade-training routine during sunrise are all moving images that I readily recall.
I still have not seen all of Refn's work and so I am not able to call this his masterpiece. Besides, this brave storyteller clearly has another dozen in his blood. I'll suffice to say it's one of his master works for now. Drive was a strange piece of art for being half a pop-romance cruising film and half a depraved and relishing blood-fest. Only God Forgives is only that second half, though decidedly less glorified. A majority of the heinous acts I've described are obscured or happen off-screen completely, though in nearly every case we don't get away without seeing the results. It's a lot less effecting when taken as a Buddhist allegory of Gods and Devils waging a war upon the streets of Bangkok. Ultimately, it is the title we are left with (and naturally what we started with). It's open to interruption how "Only God Forgives" could be verbally expressed or, more importantly, who it is referring to. This is a film that asks those questions, lends those possibilities, and flexes the back of cinema.