Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. A Grand Elephant/Bold Films/Film i Vast et al. (18).
Producers: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval.
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Camera: Larry Smith.
Music: Cliff Martinez.
Sets: Beth Mickle.
Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Pitchawat Petchayahon.
Bangkok-based drug dealer Julian’s (Gosling) life spirals out of control after his brother (Burke) beats an underage prostitute to death. The karaoke loving cop (Pansringarm) on his tail is the least of his worries though when Julian’s forthright and mourning mother (Scott-Thomas) turns up, demanding revenge on all those involved in Burke’s death, irrespective of what he did. Julian’s mettle and manhood are tested to the limits.
If ever there was a film to divide opinion, it would be Only God Forgives. Booed at Cannes whilst simultaneously receiving a standing ovation, it is a troubling rumination on the nature of vengeance and justice in which no protagonist escapes unscathed.
There is no question about the level of violence in this movie; it is shockingly, stomach-turningly aggressive and visceral. If one is easily upset by scenes of dismemberment, you may want to think twice before buying your admission ticket as a lot of arms are lost during the proceeding actions.
Whether all of this is actually necessary is a big point of debate, as are the contents of writer/director Winding Refn’s mind to come up with such a twisted narrative in the first place. But this is perhaps in keeping with the tonal and moral contrasts that feature throughout the film.
What shouldn’t be fought over is the striking visual style that Winding Refn has constructed his film with. Or constructed his film around as in real life he is colour blind so favours strong, contrasting colours as they allow him to detect tonal differences more easily. His films have a stark, almost hallucinogenic quality to them and in key scenes here, he uses two bold colours on top of one other, such as the opening boxing match.
Fans of David Lynch might jump for joy or run for cover at some of the overt references to that man’s own surreal work, particularly in the pulsing colour of the brothels so evocative of the ‘red room’ scenes in Twin Peaks.
Only God Forgives has the texture of a neon dream and there are odd highlights that push it further into being some sort of fairy-tale. The perpetually calm Pansringarm, when not placidly slicing people to bits, has a penchant for romantic karaoke and sings in a favourite bar surrounded by fairy lights. A dreamlike music twinkling in the background is the only sound as Gosling is informed why his brother was beaten to death. It is for this reason along that the film stands out as a stunning and uniquely visual high.
The performances are uniformly strange, hypnotic even, with Thomas standing out as the only person with anything to say, a peroxide Furie breathing cigarette smoke and peppering the air with language that would make even the hardiest of prostitutes blush, spurning her reluctant, Oedipal son to action. She is perhaps the most traditionally masculine person in the film.
Despite the extreme violence, this disturbing story is leavened by long pauses and almost non-existent dialogue (Gosling can’t say more than a few dozen words throughout) lending the narrative an almost contemplative feel, further enhanced by the actors slow and purposeful delivery allowing the audience chance to concentrate on why they feel the characters are acting the way they are. The downside is that sometimes, we have to work a bit too hard to fill in some of the gaps.