Arthouse Film Review

Gritty in Pink Film Review: Only God Forgives

August 10, 2013Ben MK

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Winding Refn's Latest Pic is More Arthouse than Multiplex

Full disclosure: Being a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn's previous films, Bronson and Drive (Valhalla Rising, not so much), I wasn't about to let negative word of mouth deter me from seeing his latest, Only God Forgives. If anything, it only spurred my interest in seeing where the acclaimed director might have gone wrong. Is it a bad film? No, but it may not be what audiences expect.

Hey girl ... Wanna fight?
As its title implies, Only God Forgives is about vengeance and the lengths to which some will go to execute their vengeance. At its core, it's also about one man's struggle to redeem himself for his brother's misdeeds. Winding Refn re-teams with Drive star Ryan Gosling and Drive composer Cliff Martinez to tell the tale. The story revolves around Julian (Gosling), a boxing club owner and drug dealer in Bangkok, Thailand, who finds himself caught between the will of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a cop (Vithaya Pansringarm), as both seek their own brand of justice in the aftermath of a horrific crime committed by Julian's brother, Billy (Tom Burke).

In one scene, Kristin Scott Thomas' character, Crystal, laments to her son, Julian, "I don't understand you ... and I never will". This may echo the sentiment of some moviegoers, because Winding Refn's followup to Drive is not nearly as accessible as his 2011 film. While Drive was an arthouse film disguised in pop culture tropes, Only God Forgives makes no such concessions. There are no pop music anthems embedded in the film's soundtrack. There are fewer big name stars on the marquee. There's no underlying love story. The film even plays like a Thai foreign film, complete with opening and closing credits primarily in the Thai language. Its scenes blend acts of violence with abstract visuals and minimalistic dialog, all unspooling at a slow and steady pace. Although some audiences may have qualms about the film's plodding pacing, it works well to create a deliberate sense of dread that surrounds every act of explicit violence.

What Winding Refn has crafted here is a pastiche of surreal and gruesome imagery, bathed in neon hues and inspired by the likes of fellow filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky and Gaspar Noe. Faucets and long hallways that run red with blood are some of the visuals that pepper the film. Winding Refn plays with foreshadowing and metaphors, intermingling dream-like sequences with actual goings-on, so that at times the audience isn't sure of what's real and what isn't. He also harkens back to his earlier films: the scenes of policeman Chang (Pansringarm) singing for an audience are reminiscent of Charlie Bronson playing to an audience in Bronson, and many of Only God Forgives' characters go unnamed (at least until the end credits), much like Valhalla Rising. It's largely a case of style over substance, but that may very well be the point. The sparce story elements exist only to provide cohesion for the visuals, leaving the images to tell the story ... usually at the expense of dialog, exposition and character development. The adage, "the medium is the message", is apropos.

In North America, the film is available simultaneously in select theaters and on-demand. Given this choice, this is one to watch on-demand. It's not because Only God Forgives isn't worth a theater ticket. Rather, you'll want to (read: you should) see it twice ... once to experience the film, and a second time, to appreciate it for what it is. It's one of those films you have to "get" to enjoy. Give it a chance, because it definitely improves upon a second viewing.

The Bottom Line

Only God Forgives is a slow burn, powered by strong visual direction and a brooding, genuine sense of dread that precedes each violent turn. For some, this may be enough to overcome the film's weak points (its one-dimensional characters and shoestring plot). For others, Winding Refn's latest will fall flat. It's definitely worth a rental at least ... if only to see for yourself. [★★★]

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