Only God Forgives takes the best elements of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the extraordinary implementation of color saturation and framing with some sexual fetish as a garnish, and merges them with the hyper-violence and revenge fantasy of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. It’s an exercise in style over substance, which seems to be the only thing critics have to say about this film, but who ever said style can’t be a form of substance?
Director Nicolas Winding Refn reunites with Hollywood heart-throb Ryan Gosling and composer Cliff Martinez for a spiritual sequel (by my reading of the film, anyway) to 2011’s Drive. Both films approach the concept of the anti-hero, but they do so in opposing ways. The Driver was a quiet, sympathetic loner who put his life on the line and committed violent acts, but it was an attempt to protect the girl he loved and her young son. He may have drowned a man in tidewater while wearing a prosthetic mask and stabbed Nemo’s dad in the chest, leaving him to bleed out in a parking lot, but he did so with a righteous toughness masked by his boyish innocence. The Driver was an anti-hero the audience rooted for.
In Only God Forgives Gosling plays Julian, a hollow, robotic drug pusher who runs a Thai boxing gym as a front. When Julian’s older brother brutally rapes and murders a 16-year-old girl, and is subsequently brutally murdered at the hands of the girl’s father, Julian and his psychotic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) set out to seek vengeance on the Thai cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who allowed it to happen. Julian is submissive to his abusive mother, he watches young girls masturbate in seedy sex clubs, and ultimately he’s powerless despite his cold and brutal demeanor. For 90 minutes we watch as the opposing forces dismember and brutalize numerous people in pursuit of vengeance, with nobody to root for. Instead of glorifying the violent anti-hero like in Drive, Refn condemns them to roam blood-soaked, neon-drenched rooms, to do what? To avenge the death of a man who painted the walls with a young girl’s blood? Audiences aren’t used to this concept, especially those who only know Refn’s work from Drive, and therefore dismiss Only God Forgives as a pretentious exercise in violent fetish. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Those who can’t get down with the admittedly vulgar and slow-paced content of the movie should at least be able to admire the visual construction of the film. Refn, in tandem with cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut), build nearly every frame symmetrically and drown their actors in shadows and over-saturated artificial light. It really is a visual spectacle, one that I absolutely lost myself in. That hypnotizing effect of the visuals is aided by Cliff Martinez’s dreamy, foreboding score. Refn and Martinez are a match made in heaven, demonstrated best by the scenes in the film that drift into a surreal dreamscape, a la David Lynch. The attention to detail that is showcased on the screen is impeccable, so give credit where credit is due. Only God Forgives is a stylistic triumph.
Refn could have easily followed up Drive with another mainstream accessible film, but instead he produced something so polarizing, so offensively dense for the casual moviegoer that some may have written him off as gaudy and contrived. But you’re doing yourself a disservice to write off this film, as it possesses a stylistic attention to craft and atmosphere that has all but disappeared from American movie theaters. Yes it’s offensive, yes it’s inaccessible, but it’s truly provocative and every bit as good as Drive. Nicolas Winding Refn is the director to watch right now.