Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives back from the dead.
Only God Forgives (2013)
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Usually, we tend to pick out films that have spent a good couple of years in purgatory before attempting a Movie Resurrection. But every now and again, a film gets panned by the critics without a moment’s notice, caught in the crossfire and dismissed in a flurry of rushed hatchet jobs. And so, with its recent home movie release in mind, now might be the best chance we have to breathe life back into this poor soul.
When Only God Forgives was shown at a Cannes press screening, it was met with walkouts, boos and, curiously, a smattering of applause. It’s a film that was destined to provoke a strong reaction, with some comparing the experience to being “shat upon” by the director, and others praising it as a “dreamlike fable of revenge and retribution”. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re sitting on, a film has to receive credit for its ability to provoke an audience – and for my money, it’s a fucking masterpiece.
Only God Forgives is the latest effort from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s a violent, visually aweing crime thriller set in the neon-drenched districts of Bangkok – the kind of film we’ve come to expect from the director of the groundbreaking Pusher trilogy. The narrative follows the expatriated Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai boxing club, that he and his brother use as a front for their family’s successful drug smuggling business. After his brother rapes and kills a teenage prostitute, and is murdered in turn, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to ‘handle’ the situation, enlisting Julian to exact vengeance on the killers of her first-born. However, unbeknownst to Julian and his mother, the man they’re hunting is as much an old-testament god as he is a retired police chief.
Gosling carries depth without the assistance of regular dialogue, but Pansringarm plays the god-like Chang to even greater effect
These characters, and their respective motives provide the driving force for the film’s narrative. Firstly there’s Crystal, Julian’s mother and tormentor. She’s a Donatella Versace look-a-like who commands complete attention as the mob’s matriarch. Then there’s Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the aforementioned retired police chief and the target of Crystal’s misguided plot for vengeance. He’s an ethereal presence in the film, turning up to exact justice by lopping off an arm or taking a life with a sword he draws from nowhere. And stuck between these two forces is Julian, a quiet but dangerous man whose responsibility to his mother controls his every action.
Ryan Gosling does an exquisite job with the role of Julian, carrying great depth in his performance without the assistance of regular dialogue. It’s in a similar fashion that Vithaya Pansringarm, perhaps to greater effect than Gosling, plays the god-like Chang. The grace and decisiveness of his movements and the calm tone of his voice evoke an uncomfortable level of control throughout the film. And then there’s the show-stealing turn from Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal. Thomas sinks her teeth into the role, snappily spitting out phrases like “cum-dumpster” with enough venom and animosity in her delivery to unsettle any viewer.
If the critics had agreed upon anything, it was that Only God Forgives was an aesthetically infallible film. Thanks largely to the cinematography of Larry Smith, the beautiful sets, gaudy settings and Kubrickian levels of design that make up the seedy Bangkok of Only God Forgives are presented to their maximum effect. The aesthetic style isn’t, as so many critics have spouted without a second thought, just eye-candy. There’s a penetrating miasma of fear that encompasses every shot, from the claustrophobic, fixed camera work, to the infernal, chthonic corridors of every building.
Only God Forgives abandons clear expression for something altogether more engrossing, harrowing and ultimately cathartic
But Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t presenting us with a puerile display of style over substance; he’s presenting us with a nightmare. Only God Forgives is a richly layered, beautifully constructed, thematic powerhouse. It’s a primal film that concentrates all its imagery into a potent story about violence and revenge, abandoning dialogue and clear expression for something altogether more engrossing, harrowing and ultimately cathartic. There will be a lot of people who don’t get along with that kind of filmmaking, but that shouldn’t damn this picture to an early grave.
All images: Lionsgate UK