Expectations were high this year, in Cannes Film Festival, as Nicolas Winding Refn's new Thailand-set thriller was first screened there. In 2011, director Nicolas' "Drive" swerved into the festival and claimed the "Best Director" Award. With "Only God Forgives" (2013) the critics were dissentious, as it earned both hearty applause and fiery boos. The story is clamorously simple, even though it is every bit as aesthetically ravishing as "Drive."
When it comes to movies, how the story unfolds is as important as the story itself. If you take that into account, the way plot unfolds will definitely knock you out. But, the elegant style is often contradicted with brutal subject matter. The violence, presented here, is repellent, which results in some gruesome set pieces that's both hard to watch and difficult to look away from. If you are looking for some meaning in this whittled down plot, then you are in for a great disappointment. It is just a hallucinatory examination of one man's private hell.
Refn's strong, silent protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) is the youngest son of a dysfunctional family. He runs a boxing club in Bangkok, which is a front for his family's drug business. Julian's brother Billy (Tom Burke) is so damaged and estranged, who drifts through the city like a ghost. One day, Billy seems so bungled that he decides to murder an underage prostitute. He was killed subsequently by the girl's father at the command of satanic police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Billy's death brings up the domineering mother (from USA), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), to help clean up the mess. With almost no dialogue, the ostensible revenge battle ensues, which quietly implicates the viewer as the third party in this boiling blood feud.
Director Nicolas' fascination with texture and saturated colors evokes David Lynch. The icy stare of the actors and the style tries to evoke Stanley Kubrick. The images are immaculately composed, which is mostly bathed in deep blue and red colors. The tracking shots are sometimes so slow that we can barely tell the camera is moving. Nicolas Refn may not be capable of conveying logical themes, but he's highly proficient at presenting images that speak out on their own, even if their meanings are sometimes just plain hollow. The sequence set in the small house is my favorite one. In this scene, we watch the killer and one other person -- unseen by each other -- move in and out of view of the camera as they inch closer to their fates. Refn's direction is somehow counter to that of Tarantino's guilt-free bloodbath climaxes. Here, the violence in the ending offers us direct grotesqueness rather than thrill. Cliff Martinez's excellent score makes us to settle into the unorthodox rhythms of the movie.
Refn's actors are very very serious which might lead to mocking and critical ridicule. Kristin Thomas Scott gives a performance with excellent crudity. If not for her icy atrociousness, it would feel pasted in from a stupider B-movie. Ryan Gosling's magnetic presence internalizes the character’s emotional turmoil. He makes us feel for the scarred psyche boiling beneath his frigid exterior. Pansringarm as the cop and Angel of Vengeance, who pulls a sword from his shoulder blades, is the most nightmarish character in this film.
"Only God Forgives" has established an art-housey structure within a usual genre picture. It offers lots of sadistic violence but no answers. It is an uncompromising revenge flick with vivid stylized image. Who knows? It might become a "cult classic" in a decade.
Only God Forgives -- IMDb