Only God Forgives operates on a very simple principle: violence begets violence. Lasting until one side is destroyed or maimed to the point that reprisal is simply a non-issue.
After his commercially successful neo-noir crime film Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn has re-teamed with star Ryan Gosling for Only God Forgives. A film decidedly less commercial and more stylish than Drive. A film more in the vein of his previous film Valhalla Rising. Only God Forgives will put most viewers off with its pacing, voyeurism and oppressively foreboding tone. There is a narrative in there. It is bbscured by Refn’s attempt to explore the twisted fantasies of Julian Thompson(Ryan Gosling) and find a deeper emotional and symbolic meaning to the film. Reality and fantasy blend together to the point it’s hard to distinguish which is which. The only constant is that violence creates more violence, creating all the natural momentum this 90 minute film needs.
Violence is what this film is about. The characters aren’t really characters. They are more like shades, figments of people. Their conversations to and about one another do not matter. Lines like “Time to meet the devil” and “Hey, wanna fight?” sound really cool, but our meaningless. It is the actions of these people that the film cares about. How does Billy act and react to killing an underaged prostitute. How does that prostitutes father react to that. How does Crystal, Julians drug kingpin mother, react to the death of her first born son. Their reactions all build on top of one another bringing brutal violence to those believed to have wronged them. It wouldn’t be surprising to read about how Only God Forgives is about men and women working their way through purgatory towards heaven or hell.
At the center of this is the Angel of Death or Vengeance (depending on your point of view) Lt. Chang(Vithaya Pansringarm) and his own violent actions. Vithaya Pansringarm has quite the presence shifting from justice dealing cop to warm family man and karaoke bar singer effortlessly. Making it understandable how Julian becomes fascinated by this figure.
Saying Ryan Gosling doesn’t act because he only speaks maybe 20 lines in the entire film is a bit reductive. Julian isn’t very good at expressing himself verbally. He is much better at doing it through physical action. When focusing on Julian,Forgives almost becomes an anti-melodrama as Julian doesn't react to the events around him. His stoic empty expression at the center of this madness is unflinching. Gosling does emote when the film goes into what appears to be the voyeuristic fantasies of his character. Such fantasies include him watching himself finger a prostitute. It’s all very surreal.
Only God Forgives is at times contradictory to adjectives used to describe it. The film is both silent and thunderously loud at the sametime. Dialog is muted out and replaced with other sounds, the sounds of other people and the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand. Other time all sound appears to be gone for minutes on end or just feature the films electronic soundtrack. These decisions all feed back into the voyeuristic tendencies of this film. Only God Forgives is very dark both thematically and literally, the soft low neon lights block out all other color becoming bright by comparison. At the very least Refn has created a beautiful aesthetic captured by cinematographer Larry Smith.
All of this makes the film very abrasive and disconcerting. Larry Smith’s constant use of long shots to frame the actors gave me the feeling that I was watching something I shouldn’t be. Like the cut might have come a bit too early. It did not. This feeling of watching people is only compounded by medium shots being used to frame actors within frames. Only euphoric, if such a feeling exists in this film, close ups are free of this dread.
When all of these elements are edited together they become one violent surreal movie. Making it appear that all the characters have some kind of link to each other as the film cuts from Julian watching Mai to Crystal watching buff men in jockstraps pose to the policemen watching Choi sing. All connected but unaware of each other's presence until the moment of impact.
Refn’s film speaks in the neon soaked setting and the sudden explosions of graphic violence. Symbols dominate this story making it all ambiguous and up to the viewer to decide. Having now watched this on demand in my home. Hearing and reading about films polarizing reaction at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival makes perfect sense. This seems like the type of movie that would get simultaneously booed and cheered. Me, I’m alone in my home left pondering what it all meant.
Only God Forgives is currently released both theatrically and on various Video On Demand services.