Only God Forgives (2013)
2011’s Drive was like a sucker punch to the chops for me. I’d heard of Nicolas Winding Refn (NWR for shortsies) and seen the unconventional Tom Hardy showcase Bronson beforehand but I sat down knowing next to nothing when it came time to watch Gosling stoically toothpicking his way around L.A. I’ve caught up on most of his back catalogue now and thusly Only God Forgives didn’t have the same potential to wonderfully blindside me. Or so I thought.
“Time to meet the devil.”
Only God Forgives focuses on Julien (Ryan Gosling), an American drug smuggler living in Bangkok, who uses a Thai boxing club as a front for his illegal activities. Things get more complicated when his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) visits wanting vengeance for the death of Julien’s brother and her firstborn son Billy (Tom Burke). What follows is a tale of existential angst and brutal violence. Most of it having something to do with the wrath of a man named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a cop with supernatural abilities and a penchant for doling out his own form of justice at the edge of a Bushido blade. Right off the bat, it’s important to note that this ain’t Drive 2: Hammertime. It’s very much in the vein of NWR’s more weirder previous works like Bronson and Valhalla Rising. It’s a surreal, almost nightmarish journey. Gosling’s Julien is another man of few words like his Driver character, but is battling (and some would say losing) a lot more demons and internal conflicts this time round. As a Gosfan, I was pleased. Kristen Scott Thomas gives us a purposely detestable, manipulative mother character as Crystal. Despite the reprehensible way she acts and the odious things she says, she’s completely fascinating and engaging. Vithaya Pansringarm is fantastic as Chang and his roaring rampage of revenge is compelling as fuck. You know shit’s going to hit the fan when he turns up, looking like you’ve just keyed his car and shat through his letterbox.
It’s very tough to get a handle on Only God Forgives, at least initially. I felt that at least for the first half, the film was holding me at arm’s length, refusing throw me a bone until I started connecting with it in the way it intended. The opening is slow and methodical, cutting from scenes of brutal violence to sleazy goings on in the Bangkok underworld. You’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t, thanks to Julien’s disturbing daydreams and reveries. My brain was working overtime trying to connect the sparse dots and coming up with nothing. However, once I started to let the film wash over me, I suddenly got it. It’s meant to be several steps in front of you. You just have to keep up until it decides it wants to start spinning a more cohesive yarn.
The thing that is hard to get away from is how goddamn beautifully it’s shot. I’ve said this with other films, but I really think you could take any frame from the film and hang it up on your wall as a piece of art. Primary colours reign supreme, ranging from seedy, pornographic red neons to cold and distancing glacier blues. Never has Bangkok looked more alluring and unnerving. The way the film is shot certainly helps you get through the “what the fuck is going on?” first half. Cliff Martinez’s score also compliments the awesome cinematography incredibly well. Time to add another movie soundtrack to my already ridiculously massive collection.
Despite playing coy buggers and keeping you distanced for the most part, there’s one aspect that Only God Forgives wants you up close and personal for- the violence. The film takes a pornographic glee in its own brutality and it’s genuinely savage stuff. Apart from my main man Chang and his mad sword skillz, there’s one torture scene in particular that will be etched on my frontal lobe for the foreseeable future. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say when you hear the line “Remember girls, no matter what happens… keep your eyes closed.” You may want to heed the same advice. I was flinching like a motherfucker. Having said that, the highlight for me is a fight between Julien and Chang. Everything from the pounding music to the setting is brilliant and will almost definitely feature in my Scenes of the Year list.
It’d be easy to dismiss Only God Forgives as “pretentious”, especially with its occasionally heavy-handed symbolism. There’s a preoccupation with hand imagery and huge Oedipal overtones in the relationship between Julien and Crystal. Thing is, it’s done with such skill, I didn’t give a shit about whether the film was intellectually overreaching or not. People tend to use the word “pretentious” incorrectly to describe anything of higher intelligence than a ham sandwich or something that doesn’t lay its cards out on the table straight away. This pisses me off as it breeds contempt for anything attempting more than loud noises and explosions. I think NWR and crew understand what they’re doing. They may not be breaking new ground in terms of imagery or whatever, but I don’t know how to end this sentence so fuck you.
“Want to fight?”
Only God Forgives is a strange one. It’s an experimental, disquieting film that’s both beautiful and repugnant. It’s blindsided me in a completely different way to Drive. I’ll need to see it again to see if I can squeeze any more understanding out of it. However, even if a second viewing doesn’t warrant any more answers, I’ll be happy. It’s nice being foxed by a film sometimes. It’s a rare thing. Would I recommend it ? I have no idea. Alls I know is that I thoroughly enjoyed it and my brain may take quite a while to recover from the bending and twisting it received. Here’s looking forward to Only God 5gives in 2015.