This is not, despite the adage, a case of seeing the forest for the trees but of seeing the trees for the forest. Rather than having a story that is presented to the audience on a platter, Only God Forgives, does not forgive. Its series of intimate moments and crushing instances of supernatural violence convene to build atmosphere. Somewhere between these pieces of ethereal debris lies a story waiting to be extrapolated. More can be gleaned from what isn’t said than what is. It is a marvel of dream-weaved filmmaking. Hallucinatory? Maybe. Illusionary? Definitely. Aimless? Not a chance.
More after the jump.
The observer effect states that the very nature of observation will change the nature of that which is observed. Drive sent Nicolas Winding Refn’s name out beyond the realm of his usual small time status to that of a recognised auteur, at once reaching commercial and critical mass. For that onslaught of new coming admirers looking for Drive Pt. 2, leave now, because you will be disappointed. But for those who know the joys of the 2 films Refn directed prior to that, theatrical real life prison tale and Tom Hardy breakthrough Bronson (2008) and acid trip viking romp Valhalla Rising (2009), rejoice, for this is a homecoming of sorts.
Fusing Bronson’s hyperreal portrayal of masculinity and bonkers violence with Valhalla Rising’s simmering, slow burn supernatural musings, Refn has taken the extremes of those two movies and pushed them further. Ryan Gosling’s near silent Julian clenches his fists in almost comic preparation just like Tom Hardy’s bald headed brute Bronson. The violence that ensues is of similar character. These are both men who would rather use fists than words, bravado without limits, machismo painted almost as personality.
Tales of the film’s gross misogyny and hyper-violence are, however, greatly over exaggerated. It is a very violent film, shot in away that is almost porn-glorious, primary colours drench near everything in sight, shots linger voyeuristically and Cliff Martinez’s superlative score pushes every scene to it’s absolute breaking point. But, compared to similar efforts from similar filmmakers in similar countries, OGF is a damp squib. Oldboy’s (2003 – South Korea) squid eating and tongue chopping, The Raid’s (2011 – Indonesia by way of Welsh director) full on Kung-Fu assault, Ichi the Killer (2001 – Japan) even has a severed face. On Western turf, American Psycho (2001) dealt with prostitute disfigurement in a much more graphic manner, so all these type of criticism’s levelled at OGF are essentially null.
It does breach taboo subjects, but this, surely should make a film all the more interesting, not off-putting? It’s Oedipal themes are left hanging tantalisingly in the air, never truly set upon but exposed just enough to arouse suspicion. The way Julian’s mother Crystal (a ferocious Kristin Scott Thomas – more on her later) speaks comparatively of her two sons penises at a dinner table is astounding. Julian has just introduced his hooker-come-girlfriend, Mai, and his mother has unfurled his charade in seconds, painting him to be weak and emasculated, a disappointment in every sense. And in what could prove to be the most memorable insult of the cinematic year, she turns to Mai, and calls her a “cum-dumpster”, minutes after they’ve first met.
It’s the post scene fallout, in which Julian demands Mai to strip in an alleyway that provides the pay-off, not just a scene where Gosling actually speaks, but shouts. With the context of the previous scene, the aforementioned things coalesce, perhaps Julian and his brother’s ill treatment of women is seeded straight from their mother, a woman they have to love, a woman that they might just hate.
Back to Scott Thomas. Drive had several well renowned actors in smaller parts, Bryan Cranston appeared more Malcolm In The Middle’s Hal than Breaking Bad’s Walt, muddled and pathetic. Ron Perlman’s gangster as one-dimensional as the accusations of one-dimensionality levelled at OGF and Carey Mulligan’s, bland, disaffected Irene all missing their marks. Not Scott Thomas though, she storms through proceedings, at once ethereal, sexy and scary, a revelation, and hopefully a collaboration that extends beyond this one picture. Refn seems to know how get something new from an actress 3 decades into her career.
And to think, I’ve got this far without mentioning the stories villain. Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, a veritable Angel of Vengeance. A spectre, capable of pulling a katana seemingly out of his spine and issuing razor sharp vengeance. It is at the hands of this man that the blood flows, dispensing with Julian’s older brother early on for the rape of a 16 year old girl, an event that spurs the films revenge plot. He is not necessarily evil, a paragon of justice perhaps. His performance is evocative of Mads Mikkelsen’s in Valhalla Rising, brutal, almost wordless and balancing deftly between being a ghostly apparition and a genuine human being. His performance is seamless and captivating, he anchors the piece, having more of an affect on proceedings than the apathetic Julian.
So, unlike Drive, the narratively loose, 80’s pop paean, thin on atmosphere but thick with trite romanticism and nostalgic whimsy, OGF is a tight almost operatic thriller, bordering or perhaps plummeting into the realms of supernatural dream state horror. It’s a harder sell than Drive but they say nothing worth doing is going to be easy.
Only God Forgives is a polarising film, it seems to be meriting 5 stars or no stars, like cinematic Marmite. It seems to me that this polarisation stems from how the audience responds to filmmaking. Those looking for easy story lines, themes that are universal and palpably swallowable will be disinterested. Those who enjoy a highly re-watchable film that keeps it’s card close to it’s chest, then roll on up. Only God Forgives is stitched together with microscopic glances, huge bloody murders and a bare minimum of spoken words, this leaves one to add it together in their own head. What does it all mean? You decide.
I will not rate the film with a score as enjoyment is subjective, but I do compel you to seek it out, to avoid the naysayers and take your own stab at cajoling a meaning from this dense piece of avant-fantasy. And if you aren’t convinced after that, then give Bronson and Valhalla Rising a go to seek some better perspective into the mind of Nicolas Winding-Refn, a truly brilliant filmmaker and one we hope to hear a great deal more from in the coming years.
– Oliver Drew