Nicolas Winding Refn takes his characteristic mix of oddball psychodrama and explosive ultra violence to the sultry underside of Bangkok for this tale of revenge and vigilante justice. Starring the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and a Ryan Gosling shaped Void, the film mixes the surreal and the hyperreal to dizzying effect. But is it actually any good?
Only God Forgives is at its heart a family drama, albeit one disguised in the clothing of a crime thriller. The dramatic motor of the film is provided by the death of Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) brother. Murdered by the father of a teenage girl he raped and killed, it is not long before the obscene capital M Mother figure Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from America thirsty for blood. To Julian this presents a quandary – on some level he believes that his brother deserved his fate, preferring himself to stick to running his Muay Thai boxing school and his legal age prostitute / girlfriend. On the other hand he is in psychosexual thrall to his mother. Complicating matters is the involvement of the unflappable police detective Chang, the karaoke singing, sword wielding force of immediate justice that seeks to cure his ailing city by any means he deems necessary.
The psychoanalytical dimensions of the film sit near to the surface. Crystal talks fondly of her deceased son’s penis, Julian killed his father on orders from his mother before fleeing to Thailand. Chang is not the Law as such, but a supplemental element of excess that is necessary for the proper functioning of justice. He resists any interpretation as part of the westerners’ psychodrama, destroying it on contact. For example, in a pivotal scene where Julian and Chang fight in the middle of the boxing schools cavernous main room, Julian circles Chang in a performance meant for his onlooking mother and girlfriend. In short, Chang beats Julian senseless in one of the best choreographed and shot fight scenes I have ever seen in a film. But the lingering shots are reserved for the faces of his supposed supporters, as they turn from confidence, through horror and into disgust. Here the network of relations is simply swept away by the self mastery of Chang (who is at least 10 years Julian’s senior). Before this shattering encounter, Crystal could use Julians perverse loyalty to her advantage, but after seeing his insufficiency in the face of Chang’s absolute moral certitude, she is left with only impotent revenge against Chang’s family as an option. Her fate is sealed, and the only question that remains concerns Julian’s ability not to be dragged down with the sinking oedipal ship.
The story resolves itself along these lines, sometimes coming perhaps too close to representing things exactly as they are (e.g. Julian’s final scene with Crystal), but generally the film succeeds in delivering a narrative that works on any level you choose to view it. Whether you see a drama, or a thriller, or something else entirely, you won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer.
Ryan Gosling’s performance in Only God Forgives is essentially a more extreme version of the one he gave in Refn’s previous film Drive. At the risk of comparing everyone and everything to Nicolaus Cage, Gosling here is the mirror image of Cage’s excess of real life persona. Gosling is an absence of presence on screen, not so much filling the role as providing a negative image by which you perceive the character. This isn’t a criticism – it works very well for him and suits Refn’s directing style perfectly. Julian as played by Gosling could have been played by anyone – he has about 15 lines in the whole film – but no one else would have been capable of moving their real-life selves out of the way and letting the traumatic emptiness at the heart of Julian’s character shine through. Compare this with the not-very-good legal thriller Fracture where Gosling struggles to flesh out a multifaceted character the film desperately wants us to like. Hollywood has gone to great pains to have us accept Gosling as a leading man, but on the strength of Only God Forgives and Drive, he may yet flourish as a true character actor.
Elsewhere performances are uniformly excellent. Kristin Scott Thomas imbues her character with a perfect blend of new money gauche, manipulative coquettishness and malicious sexuality. In an outburst at a hotel receptionist early in the film you can see all of these facets on displays simultaneously. It’s a great turn, and I couldn’t imagine her character any other way (which surely is the mark of a great performance?)
Pansringarm inhabits his character equally well. Not well known out of his native Thailand, here he almost succeeds in stealing the film entirely. The sense of dignity that he lends scenes that might otherwise be ridiculous (performing his sword practise in the morning breeze for example), and in doing so prevents the film from falling into what might have been an easy trap – the unstoppable, unknowable Thai terminator wreaking havoc as the westerners act according to intelligible motives. On top of this, he of course is the focus of the bizarre and hugely enjoyable karaoke scenes which even on repeat viewings, seem to me to bear little relation to the plot. Nevertheless he again lends them gravity, and has a pretty decent singing voice to boot.
Visually the film is beautiful. It’s a ‘colour’ film, in this case red, but with a dedication above and beyond other movies that use similar palette techniques. The red of Only God Forgives is a deeper kind of red than the one we find in our real lives. It seems to bleed out of its shape into the darkness that almost always surrounds it. This being Bangkok, one of the great neon cities, everything is aglow, but the light doesn’t penetrate very far in to the ink. Refn doesn’t shy away from the ridiculously bold either, opting for the occasional suspension of subtlety in favour of a shot of some impossibly lit gold idol, or hallucinatory trip down a blood red corridor. It comes together nicely, so nicely in fact that watching the film with the sound off would probably be a worthwhile experience.
The action scenes (aforementioned fight scene and a chase through the back alleyways) are well done, and the application of ultra violence is by and large judicious, although Refn seems to have a real vendetta against eyeballs. In parts the film may be too gory for some, but missing it on those grounds seems a shame – watch it with a clued in friend who can help you
slice shut your eyes at the more vicious moments.
The score is well done, mostly consisting of a similar kind of noir-ish electro that can be found in Drive. Thai instruments and musical ideas are present in parts, along with a more curious addition of a pipe organ playing a fairly intense bit of fugue during the fight scene. Generally it fits with the character of the film, but with so much to notice elsewhere, it’s not a standout element.
Only God Forgives received wildly differing responses form critics on release, and many people walked out of showings at festivals either out of boredom or repulsion. I can understand the first part – this is a film that many people aren’t going to like – but not the second response. It’s certainly an unusual film, but not one I feel wilfully sets out to offend or to probe taboos (unlike the films of Refn’s countryman Lars Von Trier). Instead I think Only God Forgives is the product of a process of refinement, the end of a journey that began with the making of Drive. Refn has found an aesthetic expression for whatever it is that motivates his desire to create films and tell stories. An expression that functions by bringing the psychological elements of his story uncomfortably close to the ‘surface’ of what the viewer sees, but refusing to turn away from it, even reflecting it in the interplay of the obsessive use of colour and light that fails to penetrate the omnipresent gloom of the unknowable Real World. Aside from all of this, which could fairly be dismissed as babble, it stands alone as a great piece of filmmaking, unendurably pretty in parts and fascinatingly uncomfortable in others. Ignore the prudes and other critics and instead make a date with your partner. Dim the lights, grab the bag of Maltesers and tell them you’ve got a Ryan Gosling movie to watch. At least they’ll be relieved that it isn’t the fucking Notebook.