Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for this new installment, let’s begin with 2013′s Only God Forgives!
To say that provocateurs are prone to being divisive might be the most redundant statement… ever? Yet in the please-like-me! faces of contemporary (especially mainstream) cinema, we have very few true provocateurs working in the game today. And there’s obvious reasons for that: Their movies are hard to sell, which also means they hardly ever get made. Yet that hasn’t really happened to Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s had a decently consistent career of shifting aesthetics, and actually plenty of big projects thrown his way that he decidedly turned-down (including The Equalizer and Spectre).
But for him his career took on a whole new level with the release of his 2011 film Drive, which saw him take home the Best Director prize at Cannes and deliver as a big box-office success. When it came time for Refn to deliver on a follow-up, he reunited with his Drive front-man Ryan Gosling for Only God Forgives, a glitteringly strange, mesmeric and mad crime film set in Bangkok that delivered as one of the most divisive Cannes responses in recent years (if you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 37 on Metacritic). The film’s both hearty applause and impassioned boos still holds to this day, with the latter seeming to be a lot louder, with many calling the film “slow and dull” or “needlessly brutal and showy.” And while I can see some validation in some of those remarks, this ultraviolent, creepy, neon sheened enriched-uranium cake of pulp simply has too much to salivate over for me to simply and passionately dismiss.
The film centers on Julian (Gosling), the co-owner of a Muay Thai boxing club with his brother Billy (Tom Burke): an operation which is a front for selling drugs. Both brothers are naturally angry and violent, though in keeping his feelings in check, Julian is, of course, by far the more unsettling one. When one night comes and Billy indulges too far into his taste for violence and misogyny, and is himself murdered by his victim’s father, Julian realizes that he is expected to discharge the gangster’s ultimate responsibility: revenge. But a twinge of conscience, or a twist of pain at the memory of those misdeeds which drove him from America in the first place, won’t let him kill. This inability brings two terrifying people into his life and into the movie: one is Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), who’s enraged at Julian’s pathetic disloyalty. The other is the mysterious plainclothes police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who roams the streets armed with a sword: a sharia-samurai of justice. It’s the impassive Chang who first discovered Billy’s victim and for enigmatic reasons of his own, created the situation in which Julian found himself agonizingly incapable of that paycheck his mother expects.
Both Chang and Chrystal are undeniably almost mythic-like creatures; Chang almost a telepathic Machiavel with sadist tendencies; and Crystal is practically Julian’s God and Devil all at once, his church in a sense. And while still battling both, it leads Julian — clenched and unhappy in the three-piece suit he has put on for a dinner date with his mother, and never takes off — realizes he has to challenge Chang to a fight.
Only God Forgives exerts an eerie and woozy grip right from the outset, with many nightmarish scenes of people walking down long, claustrophobic, purgatory-like corridors with pulsing displays of color, all while Cliff Martinez’s score of a delicate cacophony of tribal drums and wind chimes gives the film a foreboding, rhythmic pace. And with those corridors there’s also Larry Smith’s lavish cinematography that holds voyeurism and haunting in the same hand, and Beth Mickle’s intricate production design. And along with the general aesthetics, what many still seem to talk about is the film’s large-and-in-charge display of violence. When the violence comes in the film, it does so in ear-punching thunder claps — fetishized scenes of bodily multination that are often prolonged, the camera merciless and unblinking, intensifying the sensation of being trapped inside someone else’s nightmare, of which, I would say, push it away from being gratuitous.
And however wild that (literally) sounds, Only God Forgives has genuine moments of subtlety to go along with the big over-the-top moments. When Julian has to go for dinner with his mother, he clearly anticipates it will be an occasion in which Crystal will pitilessly humiliate him about his cowardice (and the size of his genitals). So he brings along as his date the prostitute for whom he is a regular: Maï (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). Maï’s face shows how touched and moved she is when she realizes Julian wants her to meet his mother — and then becomes quietly and deeply wounded when Julian says that they must “pretend to be a couple.” It’s only Maï who emerges from the dinner, and indeed the movie, with any dignity and self-respect.
Stylistically, Only God Forgives has been compared to two of the other great modern provocateurs, David Lynch and Gaspar Noé (the latter was even given a special thanks credit). But the film still feels very much like a Refn film, with obvious elements being the violence, the creepy, slow-moving mood, and the wild color palette (the latter which actually comes from Refn’s inability to see mid-colors because of his color blindness). And it’s understandable that the film both sent some people running for the exits, and others bowing down in praise. This is a very violent, but bizarrely infernal creation, an entire created world of gripping fear. One that I, at least, thinks that it deserves some re-evaluation.
Where to Watch: Tubi