Director Nicolas Winding Refn returns to follow up his universally praised film Drive with Only God Forgives, which also stars Ryan Gosling. Only God Forgives may share the same director and star, but the film is vastly different than Drive, offering up viewers something much more bizarre and haunting and something more along the lines of Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Only God Forgives is Refn’s most gorgeous-looking film yet, but also his most complicated and depending on how you take that you’ll either love it or hate it.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a gym with his brother. They use the gym as a front for their underground drug-smuggling, which is how they make most of their money in Bangkok. Julian’s brother gets killed after attempting to rape a fourteen year-old and now Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) wants revenge and she doesn’t care who does it or how it gets done, just as long as somebody pays for her sudden loss.
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a twisted, yet noble police officer that quite literally believes in living and dying by the sword. He’s all about honor and code and serving justice when it needs to be served. He’s also the man that is responsible for the death of Julian’s brother.
Only God Forgives is a visceral journey into madness as director Nicolas Winding Refn tells a story about a conflicted and lost soul (Gosling’s Julian) as he searches for redemption, acceptance and forgiveness in a world where none of those luxuries are easy to get a hold of.
Refn’s film follows an incredibly simple plot line, yet it ventures off on more than one occasion into the dark unknown. You don’t watch a film like Only God Forgives. You live it. It’s like living inside of a bizarre dream. Everything is always presented in a very distant and fuzzy way, yet you cannot take your eyes off of the screen at any point.
There’s so much going on underneath the surface-level story that it reaches a certain level of insanity. Refn shifts away from his cool and quiet Drive antics to instead revisit that confused and muddied vision that he used on Valhalla Rising. Only God Forgives has much more in common with Rising than Drive, which isn’t exactly a good thing.
With Drive Refn was able to achieve a perfect balance of cool storytelling and artsy visuals that show off his more “indie” sensibilities. That may sound like a total cop out, but it really is the only way to describe the balance that Refn was able to achieve. Everything about Drive worked perfectly, from the stripped down dialogue and presentation, to the synth-pop music and restrained, but very bloody and gruesome acts of violence.
Only God Forgives leans a little more on Refn’s artsy side, which means he floods the film with an excessive amount of beauty, but beauty that doesn’t always have an exact purpose. To say that Refn is simply presenting reel after reel of pointless shots is incorrect, because everything has a purpose or a place in the film, but the film reaches a point where some of it simply isn’t needed to keep the story progressing.
The film creeps along slowly, rarely revealing the mystery surrounding almost every character and instead adding to the tension that is slowly brewing between the trio of main characters.
Ryan Gosling‘s Julian is the quiet type with a lot of pent-up aggression, while Kristin Scott Thomas‘ Crystal is the world’s worst mom without a doubt. She radiates scum and filth and perfectly represents everything that’s wrong with Julian, only amplified and with even more mystery. Chang is much more straight-forward, but equally frightening because of how little he actually says.
All three deliver unique performances that hone in on their specific characters in a way that would only work in a Refn film. Gosling is far from the film’s good guy, but he’s also not the worst piece of shit to walk the Earth, while Thomas’ Crystal is mostly reprehensible, but still understood on a basic level. Vithaya Pansringarm steals the show as Chang, the film’s most all around bad ass character without a doubt.
Pansringarm has a certain coldness to him that translates into outright fear. Everything about him is unsettling, yet you know what he’s doing is probably the most right out of all of the film’s main characters.
The visuals are prime examples of why Refn is such a talented artist in the medium of film. The long hallway shots glow in the brightly let neon set pieces and Refn’s constant pulling back of the camera makes entire scenes feel like one take. Only God Forgives is a lively film that creates a very unique atmosphere thanks to Refn’s skills as a director.
Cliff Martinez‘s score is also worth noting. It’s his most experimental yet, which accents Refn’s direction quite well.
Only God Forgives isn’t as tightly structured as Drive, but it’s also not as slow and lost as Valhalla Rising. It meanders for far too long, essentially getting lost in its own beauty for long stretches at a time. But it does find itself. Unfortunately Refn’s direction becomes overdone by this point and the film goes from great to good in a hurry, leaving only the on-screen visuals, the performances and the score to drool over, while the film’s story and lasting impact fizzles out of Refn’s complete control.
Only God Forgives – 8/10