REVIEW: ONLY GOD FORGIVES

Words: DANIEL OWEN
September 5, 2013

It is in this stillness of the dojos, brothels and Thai streets that cinematographer Larry Smith (The Guard, Bronson) creates a sensory overload of vibrant neon and textured walls, forcing us to recognise the beauty in brutality as Julian (Gosling), his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Chang proceed, however slowly, along their violent paths. It’s a visual aesthetic that led critic James King to the observation that, for Refn, ‘it’s not film noir, it’s film rouge.’


Vengeance permeates Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film since 2011’s cool, Cannes-appreciated Drive. Indeed, its solitary figure of justice, Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), cuts through the movie just as his executioners-sword cuts through the sinners that fall into his path; evoking the mercilessness of an Old Testament God amidst this fable of violence and confused sexuality set in the near-nocturnal world of the Thai capital. Yet not all is as driven as Refn’s previous outing with Ryan Gosling. In fact, with the exception of Chang’s ruthless progression through the criminal underworld of American expatriates and Bangkok gangsters, all is impressively still.

It is in this stillness of the dojos, brothels and Thai streets that cinematographer Larry Smith (The Guard, Bronson) creates a sensory overload of vibrant neon and textured walls, forcing us to recognise the beauty in brutality as Julian (Gosling), his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Chang proceed, however slowly, along their violent paths. It’s a visual aesthetic that led critic James King to the observation that, for Refn, ‘it’s not film noir, it’s film rouge.’ Importantly, the transgression from black to red identifies the difference in the nature of the crimes between the two. If noir is concerned with cynical gangsters running rackets and fending off snooping cops, rouge is concerned with the crime of passion: murders committed in the name of revenge or, in Chang’s case, from a warped sense of justice. The problem, for Crystal, the icy matriarch of the film that takes the femme-fatale to a whole new level, is that her one remaining son, after her first-born is murdered in the opening scenes thus setting the revenge tragedy in motion, is less willing to fall under her dominant control as she would like. Sure, Julian’s there to light her cigarettes and sits obediently by as she identifies his supposed jealousy towards his brother as being rooted in penis envy; after all, ‘it was enourmous. How could he compete with that?’ But, he is crucially reluctant to commit himself to the acts of vengeance as she would like. Their relationship, culminating in a scene in which Julian perversely attempts to return to his mother’s womb in a bid to severe his connection from her forever, is a psychoanalyst’s wet dream, and an intrigue to see played out on the screen.

In the closing credits, Refn dedicates the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the kingpin of Transgressive cinema whose mark can be felt so pervasively on Only God Forgives, whilst offering special thanks to Gasper Noé: the French filmmaker also invested in making neon-lit transgressions of his own (Irreversible, Enter the Void). Cliff Martinez, whose soundtrack for Drive was perhaps equally as popular as the film itself, provides a backing track to the drama that heightens tension and chimes with the evangelical justice which is centred in Chang, as the sounds of an organ builds eerily on top of a whirling synth. At Cannes Film Festival Only God Forgives wasn’t welcomed with the open arms that Drive was, but then this is a film that is going to split audiences with its sheer perversity. With this in mind, can you see the beauty in brutality? Those who do not may find this a gruelling watch, with a substantial amount of time being afforded to the shifting of eyes or the image of Gosling in thought; after all, his lines come few and far between. However, for those that do, Refn and his DP have created a mystical Bangkok that is as thrilling to watch as the action itself.


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