Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Pitchawat Petchayahon, Charlie Ruedpokanon | Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson), Only God Forgives was released earlier this summer to critical acclaim, but a mixed response from audiences across the globe. Some found the dark, mysterious and artistically minded style and pacing of the film to be beautiful, creepy, entertaining and thought provoking, while others found it to be patronising, obnoxious and, dare I say it, hollow.
It takes a certain kind of film to divide opinion so heavily, and this film is that certain kind of film. Winding Refn, here, has crafted a surrealist thriller that uses its long and personal shots of violence and landscape to fill in for its purposeful lack of dialogue. The cast is a remarkable assembly, with Ryan Gosling at the forefront, silent and deadly, with his brooding eyes and sophisticated edge, a collection of traits he is becoming known for with films like this, Drive and A Place Beyond the Pines.
Aside from Gosling, we have Kristin Scott Thomas (Gosford Park, The English Patient) as Crystal, the vile and rotten-hearted mother of Julian (Gosling) and Vithaya Pansringarm (Mindfulness & Murder) as Chang, a mythical presence in the film who often steals the scenes he is involved in. Looking at Pansringarm’s previous work, he has done very little else, and perhaps that is why his performance here is so striking and valuable, because it is easier to see an unknown performer in a role shrouded with such mystery and darkness.
The story, surreal as it is, is a fairly simple one at its core. We have Julian, whose brother has murdered an underage prostitute in downtown Bangkok, and his mother, Crystal, comes to town to collect the now dead body of said brother. The brother is dead? Yes, after the police in Bangkok make a call to a retired cop named Chang who arranges for the father of the murdered young prostitute to kill Julian’s brother. Chang, as odd and abnormal as the character it, then cuts off the father’s hand in order to restore some sort of natural order. Crystal orders her son to find her other son’s killer and take their lives, and that is the nutshell of Only God Forgives. It’s almost a cat and mouse revenge thriller, only there is a dreamlike incandescence that shimmers across the screen for the length of the film, a feeling that almost constantly makes you wonder if this whole thing is actually happening, or if you are merely witnessing the thoughts and peculiar dreams of some sort of mad man.
The shots, particularly the ones that linger on the street-light shining streets, are really cinematographically wonderful, and this film ticks the boxes when it comes to visuals. The story though, is where the film, in this writers’ view, stumbles. It is so consistently attempting to remain questionable and demented that I found myself asking for some sort of story clarity at times, the need for comfortable narration hitting me between the eyes as the film reached its final moments. Some people will, undoubtedly, enjoy the way in which the film strays from the cultural normality of what we expect from cinema, but I found myself feeling condescended by the tone of the film on occasion. The score, much like the visuals, is hard to pick a problem with, and the dialogue, or lack of it, is so obviously done on purpose that it seems pointless to find fault with that side of things.
The performances are very good here, and the story, though not always on point, is intriguing and keeps you wondering until its final scene, and probably after you’ve switched off the DVD. Worth watching then, but not one that requires much more than one or two repeated viewings, if that.
The Blu-ray, which looks fantastic, contains an audio commentary track, several interviews, and a dozen short on-set clips. Only God Forgives is available on DVD and Blu-ray now, from Lionsgate.