Article By: Dan Clark
Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who has taken the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ mantra to the nth degree. Valhalla Rising saw him center an entire movie on a character that was unable to speak. His 2011 film Drive focused around a stoic stunt driver who was clearly a man of few words. Refn’s style is almost Kubrickian—not so much in his technique—but how he has little regard for pleasing the audience. They feel less like exercises in filmmaking and more so vehicles for Refn to experiment with. Personally Refn is one of my favorite directors working today as I adore his film’s unique structure. From his Pusher trilogy to Bronson to his latest effort Only God Forgives they all provide something completely different from everything else out there.
Only God Forgives is another opportunity for Nicolas Winding Refn to flex his creative muscle. He places a profusion of surreal flair in nearly every frame. He continues his fixation on the brutality of man with some truly provocative imagery. Experimental does not begin to describe the unorthodox way the film progresses. Your orientation is always off kilter never knowing where and when the story is moving next. This provides for a fascinating experience, but one that also obsessed with its own obscurity. Those who feared Refn would fall further mainstream after the success of Drive will be pleased Only God Forgives is as confrontational as ever. However, unlike most of Refn’s other films there is nothing of validity within this exploitative exercise to latch onto. Many of the characters lack substance, the thematic angles are paper thin, and the narrative is particularly nonexistent. Even with those issues Only God Forgives is worthy of an intense watch. It is a visual assault full of intriguing imagery. Refn’s eccentric style will entice you to ponder what you just watched for days on end.
Only God Forgives also reunites Refn with Ryan Gosling who starred in his last film Drive. Gosling plays Julian another brooding character that has a gift for violence and limited amounts of actual dialogue. The similarities of the those two films pretty much stop there. Julian is a manager of a Thai boxing club and a key figure in the criminal underground. We see Julian get entangled into a situation he wants no part of. His sadistic brother is killed by the police after her brutally murders an underage prostitute. Shortly after hearing the news Julian’s mother arrives demanding he take retribution for his brother’s murder, however Julian is less inclined as he believes his brother may have gotten his just due.
This conflict between Julian and his mother is easily the most straightforward aspect of the film, and also one of the most intriguing. Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays his mother, have a nasty rapport with one another. Kristin Scott Thomas appears like she just stepped out of an episode of Real Housewives. She permeates pure horribleness. Nearly every word out of her mouth is complete vile, yet she is always interesting. Watching her verbally emasculate Gosling’s virile persona provided the only true insight to Julian’s inner workings.
Gosling’s performance is purposely limited. Similar to the Driver he spent much of his time pontificating rather than speaking. He does have a knack for portraying emotion with limited movement, but unlike Drive there was never a moment he felt in charge of the character. You could see Refn pull him along from moment to moment. It was a performance that was always in response mode as nothing felt very natural. Gosling does the job–he just doesn’t make it his own.
Julian’s main target to please his mother’s wishes is Chang played by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang is easily the film’s best character. He is the leader of the police that allowed the death of Julian’s brother to take place. Due to his keenness for restoring order he permitted the father of the prostitute to enact revenge. Beyond restoring order Chang is a fan of his sword, cutting limbs, torture, and perhaps worst of all karaoke. Yet he is not necessarily a villain—more so a force of rightful vengeance. When he finally goes toe to toe with Julian it is a brutal occasion. You can hear the internet cries of Ryan Gosling’s biggest fans as he becomes bruised and battered. Refn has a strong fixation with mangling the human body in new and vicious ways. If you can go with his provocateur attitude there is a lot to enjoy.
Nearly every frame is soaked in Refn’s exceptional aesthetic choices. Ever present neon illuminating lights provide a retro tone that looks absolutely gorgeous. Every inch of every shot is maliciously planned. There are a number of running motifs like clenching hands, elongated hallways, and massive closed doors peppered throughout that give it this dreamlike atmosphere. The editing aids in this atmosphere as well by continuously disorienting the audience. It will cut from one character to the next to give you the sense the two characters are within inches from one another when in fact they aren’t in the same room or even the same building. Aspects like this have you constantly attempting to decipher if what you are watching is vision or actual reality. Confusing things further was Cliff Martinez’s techno infused score. Inappropriate songs would play in inappropriate moments. Poppy tunes playing shortly after extreme violence caused it have a satirical feel. It was the perfect topping to this this extra-large sundae of panache.
Only God Forgives is a mesmerizing use cinematic prowess. At times it does become self-indulgent of its own craft. It is an unquestionably stunning portrait of the capabilities of filmmaking. The issue is that portrait lacks any deep substance. If you could break every scene down to determine what the metaphorical ramifications are it would most likely yield limited results. Still, even when it is indulgent it is increasingly engaging. If you are looking for more of the same from Refn you should have known better. Only God Forgives does not come close to the heights of Drive, but it shows Refn will also do things his own way.