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Only God Forgives Review: A Slow Burning Cycle Of Violence
Ryan Gosling’s Julian is a drug-dealer in Bangkok until one day when his violent sexually aggressive brother murders a girl and is punished with death by a cop called Chang. Julian’s foul-mouthed mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, arrives to pick up the body and pressures Julian to seek revenge until no man or woman is left standing.
Before reading further, let’s make it abundantly clear what kind of movie this is and whether it’s worth your time. If Refn’s Drive made you impatient with its slow-burning pace, and you couldn’t stand Gosling’s stoic and taciturn protagonist who barely said a word, then you will not like OGF. There is even less plot and dialogue in this journey. But what a journey it is, through the seedy underbelly of Bangkok. It’s neon-drenced pavements, dark alleyways and harshly lit interiors, blood red hues and amber yellows, reptilian greens and deep black holes.
This is neo-noir territory, though I found it also reminiscent of cyberpunk. A dystopic landscape of criminals living life on the other side of society amid minimalist decor. There’s no high technology, but the otherworldly feel of this world is strangely futuristic and at odds with ancient primal emotions and rituals.
Oedipal complex, crime, spirituality, empathy and apathy, redemption, God, karma, portentous dreams and nightmares. Refn calms you with long long takes of cinematographer Larry Smith’s visually intense palette. Allegedly inspired by Gaspar Noé, who gets a nod in the credits. The aesthetic canvas gives Wong Kar Wai’s regular collaborator Christopher Doyle a run for his money.
Gosling barely says anything the entire runtime, but what is there to be said? Refn is a fan of the rule that a character should only speak if they have something worthwhile to say. He does the rest of the job in communicating where Julian’s mindstate is. In the throes of barely restrained violence that wants to pour from his fists into the world, fighting against his conscious mind. Julian is a man on the edge fighting the urge to leap like his brother. There is a scene where he is on the verge of allowing an innocent, one of many in the film, from being killed and I was literally begging him (and editor Matthew Newman) out loud to stop the inevitable from occurring.
Julian’s brother kicks off a cycle of revenge and violence, as Vithaya Pansringarm’s cop Chang decides to let a victim’s relative get justice through an eye-for-an-eye. One thing leads to another and before you know it bodies are dropping all over Bangkok and Julian’s mother is tearing the city apart in her attempt to assert control. Both Scott Thomas and Pansringarm are amazing in their roles, one bristling with venom and the other as passive as a sleeping snake.
Scott Thomas feels like the wife of Ben Kingsley’s crazy Don from Sexy Beast. Utterly unabashed in her rude comments, curse-words flowing like exhalations, direct and persuasive. Pansringarm is a memorable presence on screen with his limited dialogue, but an unstoppable force. Merciless against his enemies, carrying a sword that comically comes out of nowhere, like a video-game character or spiritual warrior.
Much has been made of Refn’s penchant for showing violence explicitly, and there are moments in this story that will have you look away, if not walk away entirely depending on how strong your stomach is. But you know what? Refn’s depiction of violence is actually responsible. Compared to Hollywood’s usual penchant for blood-less explosions and mass death, all so neat and brushed over, with multiple gunshot wounds becoming nothing but mild irritants to the heroes. Refn shows violence for what it is, ugly and sickening. Swirling like a vortex, sucking people into oblivion in a never-ending cycle.
Only God Forgives pulsates with a dark soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, again helping with the cyberpunk motifs, weaving foreboding synth beats, moody, hectic, downbeat, nightmarish, dreamlike. A window into Refn’s mind which yearns to be free of all violence, a mind that cathartically pours it out onto the screen to unsettle viewers all over the world. When its filmed this well, we can forgive him.