ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)
Atmospheric, dark, and astonishingly silent despite its graphic depiction of violence and its ominous psychological undertones, Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES could have been one of the best films of this year. Almost.
Clearly an exhibition of style over substance, Refn's film set in Bangkok, Thailand depicts a cycle of vengeance where blood surely begets blood, and the obvious question should have been, where does it end? Yet ONLY GOD FORGIVES oftentimes concerns itself with remaining attractive to look at, that it forgets to show at least some glimmer of poetic justice, especially that the subject matter is that of revenge.
Make no mistake: ONLY GOD FORGIVES features some of the finest cinematography you will ever see this year, with its masterful use of shadows and red and gold palettes to heighten the dark and decrepit feel of its subject matter. Also, the lighting and the production design, which renders huge room for visual space emphasizes the sad, sad existence of the film's characters, possibly as to suggest a huge hole in their lives that cannot be filled.
Headlining the cast is Ryan Gosling as Julian, who operates a Muay Thai club as a front for illegal drug operations. Julian is good-looking and prim, but fashionably quiet, as if harboring deep issues inside, with whom we will never know until later in the film. His character's older brother, Billy played by Tom Burke makes an unspeakable act that sets in motion a chain of bloodshed. Thus requiring for the boys' mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a ruthless underworld figure to fly 30 hours to Bangkok to settle a score, and this puts her in crosshairs with a local cop named Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) dubbed also as "the angel of vengeance".
Julian is right in the middle of a bloody vendetta, and it would have been all right if the story focused on how Julian is the real victim here. In fairness to Refn, there are references in the film that suggest Julian as the victim from the very beginning, trapped between opposing forces of viciousness (Crystal vs. Chang) but the filmmaker who previously teamed with Gosling in 2011's DRIVE gets lost in his fantasy realm of madness and destruction that the film fails to deliver a solid enough conclusion. Instead we get a karaoke sequence, and that's all right if Refn's purpose is to portray Chang's humanity (as also with the inclusion of Chang's daughter in the story). But then again, a karaoke sequence? Even that is too overtly self-indulgent.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is not without merit, as I did appreciate Refn's attempts (most of them successful) in visual rhetoric, i.e. the seedy underbelly of Bangkok underground, or the lengthy showcase of Chang's ruthlessness. The slow burn of every scene adds flavor to the film, but for a few scenes it becomes the film's undoing (and not just because of the darn karaoke!). However, I did like the scene where Chang executed an assassin in front of a young boy- Refn captured the intended gravity of the sequence, and you can see through boy's enormous eyes combined elements of fear, curiosity, and maybe even a bit of reverence.
The real terror of ONLY GOD FORGIVES does not come from the dismembered bodies, or the amount of blood onscreen which would seriously rival Tarantino, or Eli Roth for that matter, but when you slowly grasp the ideas of what goes on despite the primary vengeance plot, such as the Oedipal relationship between Crystal and her boys, and the prostitution of underage children. If Freud were alive today, he'd have a field day analyzing the subtext of the Id (which runs throughout the film); come to think of it, Chang and Crystal may have been the ego, whereas Julian is of no surprise, the superego.