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Non-Review Review: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives is a journey into hell. It’s an unpleasant, uncomfortable, terrifying, surreal, macabre, haunting, eerie and beautiful exploration of brutality and violence. Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film isn’t anywhere near as accessible as Drive. It isn’t just bereft of sympathetic characters, it doesn’t even feature any characters who lend themselves to empathy or recognisability. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is so introverted and withdrawn that it’s often difficult to determine the difference between reality and his surreal dream sequences.

Then again, given Refn suggests the man is living in his own private hell, perhaps there’s not too much difference any way.

Wanna fight?

Wanna fight?

There are points where Only God Forgives is tough to watch. This isn’t just a matter of gore and gratuitous violence, although there was one extended sequence where I spent most of the time flinching. Even the character interactions are a source of intense discomfort. Julian asks a prostitute to pose as his girlfriend to impress his mother. “I want you to meet my mother,” he states, arriving with a beautifully wrapped fancy dress. Naturally, things don’t go smoothly.

It’s the set-up of a romantic comedy punchline, but Refn plays the grim concept out well past the point of the uncomfortable. Kristen Scott Thomas relishes the opportunity to bring such a deeply unpleasant character to life, a domineering mother who happily sent her two sons into exile so that she could run her business from abroad. While her two sons spend most of their time trawling through the streets and slums, their mother arrives in Bangkok to five-star luxury, verbal eviscerating a member of hotel staff when she’s told her room isn’t ready.

Suited to the task...

Suited to the task…

Scott Thomas is wonderful as this larger-than-life figure, and her scenes with Gosling are wrought with tension and discomfort. We only have to watch them together for a minute or two before we realise just how messed up this mother-son relationship has become, and how horribly this mother figure has corrupted and contaminated her two children. Billy and Julian are two very messed up individuals. When Billy is brutally murdered, his mother comes to Bangkok seeking vengeance.

“Billy raped and murdered a sixteen year old girl,” Julian tells his mother. (“I’m sure he had his reasons,” she eventually rationalises.) For his part, Julian internalises his own torment and rage. His mother assures us that he paradoxically idolised and resented (“hate is the wrong word”) Billy, his dominant older brother, but there’s clearly more to it. As we watch Julian tensing and sitting, watching and waiting, there’s a sense that he’s trying to contain something inside, keep it from spilling over.

Neon noir...

Neon noir…

He frequents a prostitute, but he seldom touches her. Indeed, his restraint is somewhat literal. The closest that Julian can manage to intimacy with the only other woman is his life is to watch and fantasise. Some times the barrier is invisible and psychological – his imagination conjuring up some grim punishment for his desire to touch – and some times it is literal – a curtain of beads representing something much stronger.

In a way, this is familiar ground for Winding and Refn. Julian is quite similar to the lead character from Drive. The only difference is that we lack a friendly character to humanise him, and that Julian seems to have less control over his darker side. When Gosling finally cracked in Drive, it formed the climax of the movie. Here, it’s a brief interlude to remind us just how dangerous Julian can be. Gosling plays it well, keeping it all reined in. He’s inscrutable. He doesn’t over play it. There’s the occasional muscle flex, but there’s also the sense of watching a ticking time bomb.

A punchy little film...

A punchy little film…

Only God Forgives is a journey into Julian’s own personal hell. At her lowest ebb, with nothing else to dangle in front of him, his mother offers him a reprieve from this exile. “We can go home,” she offers, making it clear that Bangkok never was (and never will be) Julian’s home. It is, we discover, where he ended up after fleeing the States. His crime is one of the most heinous and deadly of sins, and one can easily read his time in Bangkok as his own version of eternal damnation.

It’s worth noting that Refn makes a clear attempt to delineate the real version of Bangkok from the version inhabited by Julian. Police officer Chang lives in the real Bangkok, with his young daughter. The scenes are shot during the day, and it looks like a real place. Change practises his swordplay outside at dawn, as if trying to vanquish the darkness and fend it off. These scenes are strangely naturalistic in a film that makes a point of being stylised.

The mother of all problems...

The mother of all problems…

Julian’s version of Bangkok is radically different. It’s constantly night. Even during the day, he conducts his business in darkness. Flourescent neon, lanterns and even Christmas tree lights strung out in bars and on walls fight to fend off the darkness. What little light exists bleeds into the shots as saturated colour. There is nothing that might be mistaken for sunlight in the reds and blues and yellows. The darkness is always there, even in the corridors with the fine carpeting and stylish wall paper. There’s always a tiled bathroom with UV lighting where the darkness can come pouring in, lest Julian dare to presume that he can wash the blood from his hands.

Only God Forgives feels likes a haunting dream, a lingering and grotesque nightmare. It’s eerily and strikingly beautiful, but that superficial facade hides something truly unsettling. Refn comes closer than Michael Mann did to capturing the spirit of the classic Miami Vice, the striking and stunning visuals serving as a contrast to the uncomfortable truth at the heart of the matter. Like the original Miami Vice, Refn is more concerned with mood and tone and implication than he is with nuance or plot.

Naked truth...

Naked truth…

It’s very hard to love Only God Forgives. It’s hard to engage with Julian, and the movie doesn’t lend itself to convenient categorisation. It isn’t as strong or as compelling as Drive, the film it will inevitably be compared against. However, it’s an entirely different beast. On its own merits, it’s a hauntingly beautiful piece of work. Refn demonstrates an impressive mastery of style and form, and an eerily beautiful eye.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the film’s success is the way that so firmly divides audiences. It’s a film that draws a strong reaction, whatever that might be.

4 Responses

  1. A strange bird of a flick, but a very intriguing one because of where Refn goes and what he brings out of his style-tab with every shot. Good review Darren.

  2. I feel like you got a lot more out of it than I did. As impressive as the styling is though, I can’t help but wanting more character-wise from Julian, as middle-brow as that is.

    • Doctors differ and patients die, reviewers disagree and it makes for good debate! I thought Gosling did good, but Julian is relatively shallow – there’s no humanising influence as with his character in Drive. However, I thought there was enough there – enough inferred and hinted at – that the minimalist approach to character paid off. We fill in the dark spaces with our own black thoughts and so on. I mean, we never find out what exactly Chang is. Is he a police man? A special agent? A sanctioned vigilante? An angel? The devil? All? Neither?

      It’s an approach that could be infuriating, but I like trying to put the pieces together, even if fitting them is far from easy. I can see why people were less fond of it than Drive. (I don’t think it’s as good as Drive.) But I liked it for what it was – and I admit that’s entirely personal preference.

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