"Only God Forgives" Destined For Decades Of Dissection

“Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-publicized follow-up to 2011’s “Drive,” is insatiably succinct in its takedown of all things that audiences take for granted in cinema – most notably, the pervasiveness of dialogue and overall lucidity. The film has sharply divided critics since its debut at Cannes – where it was booed loudly – and Ryan Gosling’s increasing star power has only fanned the flames. After viewing the film, I pored through both raves and pans – each critical exaltation accompanied by an even more passionate condemnation of the picture’s violence and distorted storytelling.

And, curiously, I found myself agreeing with all of it. Both positive and negative. The film is mesmerizing, abhorrent, ponderous, ethereal, beautiful, and interminably ugly. Like Kubrick’s most provocative work, it’s intent on needling each audience member until he or she has a specific reaction, be it awe, disgust, or something in between. Winding Refn is clearly thrilled to be poking and prodding viewers with his brand of cinematic esoterica, like a DJ with a wildly obscure taste in music who’s suddenly, inexplicably found himself onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.

Drenched in a radioactive red hue, the film’s vision of Bangkok is that of a lonely dreamscape where violence is as commonplace as breathing and civility is but a rumor. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a boxing club manager-cum-drug smuggler whose deviant brother, Billy, is brutally killed for a similarly gruesome crime against an underage prostitute. The boys’ witch of a mother (actually, “witch” is charitable), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), quickly comes to town, vowing revenge for the death of her oldest son.

What Crystal and Julian couldn’t know is that Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired cop, allowed Billy’s murder at the hands of the prostitute’s father, only to take the father’s right hand to “restore balance.” Chang, ostensibly the titular “God” of the piece, takes the phrase “eye for an eye” to a new level, leaving a bloody game of dominoes in his wake.

Cliff Martinez’s score is perhaps the best thing about “Only God Forgives,” and unlike Winding Refn’s screenplay, never falters (more on that in a moment), strongly evoking both Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock and Martinez’s own electronic leanings established through his work on “Drive.” The picture certainly wouldn’t work as well as it does without its score, and it’s one of the few standouts in recent memory.

That the pacing is glacial hardly matters – at least for the first hour or so – because Larry Smith’s cinematography is so breathtaking. Gosling’s mostly mute performance only enhances the atmosphere, essentially forcing us to make sense of what we’re seeing. Instead of relying on words to convey the meaning behind his gleefully damaged morality play, Winding Refn chooses to do it almost exclusively with images. And it works wonderfully – to a point.

The extreme violence and narrative haziness of the third act sells its writer-director short, and its conclusion is predictably but disappointingly dense. The climactic fight between Julian and Chang appropriately defies our expectations, but what could have been an explosion of pent up angst – on the part of the film’s characters and us, the audience – feels slack and undercooked. Sure, the symbolism that’s so painstakingly set up throughout the picture is paid off, but it’s fundamentally unsatisfying.

Early in the film, Julian barks to his cronies “Ask him why he killed my brother,” and Winding Refn slowly zooms in on Julian. Then he cuts to the weeping, jabbering father that killed Julian’s brother, the man trying to explain why he did what he did. Except we don’t hear him. Because it doesn’t matter what the answer is. This, in a nutshell, is “Only God Forgives,” a question to which the answer is irrelevant. Nicolas Winding Refn’s motives here clearly stem from a need for self-edification. He cares about his audience, but only in evoking a response. The bent of reaction is immaterial. And in that sense, the picture is a wild success.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 19, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: RADiUS-TWC
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language)