Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s latest surrealist revenge thriller Only God Forgives revels in the absurd and is easily one of the most haunting film’s you’ll ever see. Sadly, it’s also one of the most universally panned films in years, with reviewers labeling it slow, dull and grossly violent. To be honest, most of these critics, who booed at the Cannes Film Festival screenings, are the very same people who would have booed The Shining, or Taxi Driver before it. Much like its forerunners, Only God Forgives, a cerebral, extremely polarizing and stylish film about revenge, is a hard pill to swallow and will probably only be appreciated a good ten years from now. Cinematic enthusiasts will appreciate the experimentation, but those looking for a Drive sequel will be bitterly disappointed.
Most film-goers enjoy movies the way they enjoy fast food; convenient, cheap, big and fast. Only God Forgives is not that type of film. Instead, it could be best described as a gourmet meal; cooked just right, with a variety of tastes that explode on each bite. Of course, not everyone enjoys classy food but for those who do, you’re in for a great treat. Only God Forgives, which references David Lynch films, requires audiences to think beyond dialogue and on-screen visuals. Imagine for a second the main character from Drive suffered from an Oedipus complex and had a vivid nightmare about revenge – that’s exactly what Refn visualizes. Behind the long empty gazes, awkward dialogue, ominous sound beds, fluorescent lighting and stunning visuals lies a morbid tale that slowly unfolds, entrapping the audience in a cold, violent and disturbing opera.
Ryan Gosling returns as the lead, once again playing a near-silent avenger (he has about 14 lines in the entire film), this time set in crime-ridden Bangkok. He plays Julian, an unhappy American drug dealer who uses the Muay Thai kickboxing scene to conceal his illegal activities. Julian, who often spends his evenings in strip clubs, is deeply disturbed by the brutal death of his older pedophile brother and is commanded by his overbearing mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) to avenge him. At the same time a ruthless cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), begins to track down the family, carrying out his own form of vengeance. Julian is forced to make his own moral decisions about his brother death and his mother’s evil plans.
To the average eye Only God Forgives might seem pretentious. Ryan Gosling probably spends ninety percent of the film starring sadly into empty spaces or with his back towards the camera. But digging a bit deeper will unveil the true beauty of Refn’s creation. Beyond its bleak and cold exterior lie deep undertones and symbolism for justice. Everything happens in a dreamlike state, things that are there aren’t really there and things that do happen don’t seem real. Everything is precisely framed and set against a backdrop of warm and colourful wallpapers. At the center of the story, Kristen Scott Thomas breathes life into Julian’s evil mother. She is remarkably brilliant and deserving of an Oscar nod. Her performance is only matched by the karaoke singing angel of death, played by Vithaya. Like Gosling, Vithaya plays a robotic character, but is able to express various emotions with a simple glance and stare.
If you are looking for a filmmaker that will hold your hand through the bad stuff, look elsewhere. Refn, who abandons any conventional means of storytelling, drops his audiences in the center of the disaster and removes all the training wheels we’ve come to expect from Hollywood directors. Audiences are left to fend for themselves, make their own decisions about the unlikable characters, about what the story is about and finally accept the unforgiving judgment bestowed upon them. At its essence, Only God Forgives is about horrible people doing horrible things to one another. Hence the title.
With all the praises aside, Only God Forgives isn’t an easy film to recommend. It’s intended for the brave only.