Ryan Gosling in ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Photo courtesy of RADIUS-TWC
ONLY GOD FORGIVES
2013, 90 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language
Review by Joshua Handler
This was a hell of a movie. I have never seen anything like it before and many (not me) will hope to never see anything like it again. From writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn, best known for directing 2011's Drive, comes this bizarre, grisly-violent film about a man who owns a Thai boxing club in Thailand as a cover for a drug smuggling operation (Ryan Gosling) and is asked by his overpowering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his brother.
Above all, this movie is stunning to look at. The cinematography by Larry Smith (Bronson, The Guard) is gorgeous and crisp. Not one shot is less than perfectly framed and lit. The brightly-colored scenes are often eerie. The neon lighting evokes a hellish feel. Much of this film focuses on Gosling's character, Julian, seeing visions of a devil-like character and nightmarish acts occurring around him, and the lighting furthers this mood. One particular scene is thrilling beyond comprehension. It is a shoot-out in a restaurant. The camera moves faster than usual and follows the shooters and subsequently follows two people on a foot-chase. This sequence is nerve-wracking and exciting.
Cliff Martinez's (Drive, Contagion) score is electrifying. The electronic sounds enhance the nightmarish feel of the film. This should, but will likely not, be an Oscar contender.
To paraphrase the press notes for this film, as Drive was Refn's take on the American crime film, Only God Forgives is Refn's take on the Asian martial arts film. While it does have some scenes of martial arts, much of the film is action-free. That is not to say Only God Forgives isn't violent. It is bloody and grisly, but the violence occurs so frequently that it doesn't have the shock of Drive's isolated scenes of graphic violence. Asian martial arts pictures like 1973's Enter the Dragon focused not so much on style as action. Refn takes a little action and mixes it with heavy stylization and an Oedipal theme to create something all his own. This movie is far more existential than any Asian martial arts film.
Ryan Gosling does very little in this movie. This is Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm's film. Scott Thomas plays Crystal, Julian's mother. She is an evil woman who has Julian wrapped around her finger, and Crystal and Julian's relationship has some very suggestive undertones. Scott Thomas is not an actress known for playing characters like Crystal, but she is a revelation here. Her performance is forceful and she commands the screen every time she's on. Pansringarm plays the devil-like policeman, Chang. He oozes evil. He is menacing, yet is not outrageous. Pansringarm plays Chang with considerable subtlety.
I was completely hypnotized by Only God Forgives. Many have, and will, complain that this movie is a prime example of style over substance. It is. There is no denying it. It is also a bit pretentious. Yet, there is so much to explore in it that it should not be written off. Much of the character motivation and their complexities are suggested rather than shown. This is a movie of suggestion and restraint.
Overall, Only God Forgives will not be to everyone's taste, but for those looking for something a little dark, twisted, slow-paced, and wild, this will be the movie for you. This movie makes Drive look commercial, which to some will be great, and to others terrible. I really thought this was something special and would love to see it again (and probably will soon) to further analyze it and dig deeper into it.