The past year has been a good one for arthouse fare invading the multiplexes, cunningly wrapped up in packaging that made it more appealing to viewers of mainstream cinema. Okay, it may have been only two movies that managed such a cheeky move (Spring Breakers and this one), but those two movies have made quite an impact. And deservedly so.
If you’ve already seen the trailer for Only God Forgives and heard about the reception it received at Cannes earlier in the year then you may already think that you know what you’re going to get from the movie. Think again. The trailer may look like a slow-burn revenge thriller leading up to a finale signalled by star Ryan Gosling asking, “wanna fight?” but this movie takes your expectations and subverts them at every turn. And for those thinking, or even telling people, that this is simply a spiritual sequel to Drive – that’s just not true. Admittedly, there are stylistic similarities (and Gosling is back in the lead role, acting out in scenes accompanied, once again, by a gorgeous soundtrack provided by Cliff Martinez) but look beyond those and you’ll find a very different beast below the surface.
What’s it all about, then? Well, Gosling plays Julian, a drug-smuggler living in Bangkok who finds himself tasked by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the killing of his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Unfortunately, despite his mother’s feelings for her son, Billy didn’t exactly die an unjustified death. He had just killed an underaged prostitute and was then killed by her father, acting under the orders of the feared and respected Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian is set on a path that should lead him, inevitably, to a face-off with Chang. Loyalty and honour are both good qualities, but also highly dangerous when being defined by others.
Slow, squalid and sweaty, Only God Forgives is not a pleasant viewing experience, nor is it meant to be. It’s beautifully coloured and composed (with another dedication here for the great Alejandro Jodorowsky), but the actual content of the film is almost consistently nasty. In a cinematic landscape where life is often cheap and “corpses” of unnamed extras litter the big set-pieces, this is a sobering work that goes against all that. Every action has a consequence, sometimes a terrible one, and every act of pain FEELS painful. The fact that some criticised the film for being excessively violent just proves its point. This is far less violent than almost any mainstream action movie that you could choose, but it shows the violence unflinchingly and it doesn’t cover up the serious wounds that are created onscreen.
Everyone in front of the camera does a fantastic job. It’s clear, from the design work to the camera moves to the dialogue to the quiet and powerful performances on display, that Refn is the puppet master, ensuring that nothing interferes with how he wants every scene, and indeed every frame, played out. Another common complaint from viewers is just how little dialogue Gosling has in his main role. The simple fact is that he doesn’t need dialogue to deliver an amazing performance. His emotions are there to see, even as he desperately tries to keep them buried beneath an inexpressive exterior. Kristin Scott Thomas, on the other hand, gets all the best lines and delivers them with a delicious mix of menace and borderline hysteria. Angelina Jolie will have to work hard to portray Maleficent in the upcoming live-action look at the villainess because Kristin Scott Thomas IS that woman. She’s every major Disney baddie rolled into one, with a sprinkle of Lady Macbeth and a dash of Mrs. Bates. Vithaya Pansringarm is the equal of Gosling on the other side of the coin – a man who commits horrible acts because he knows that he must remain consistent in his code of honour. Last, but not least, we have Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as Mai. She may have the least screentime of any of the four main characters (five if you count the deceased brother and the repercussions that stem from his final moments), but the scene in which she dines with Julian and his mother is, for my money, THE movie scene of 2013.
As has already become clear, this is the most divisive film yet from Nicolas Winding Refn. It also may, and I emphasise the word MAY, prove to be his richest and most densely layered work. Considering the filmography of the man, that is some achievement.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: NICOLAS WINDING REFN
STARS: RYAN GOSLING, KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, VITHAYA PANSRINGARM, YAYAYING RHATHA PHONGAM, TOM BURKE
RUNTIME: 90 MINS APPROX