Review: Only God Forgives
REVIEW: ONLY GOD FORGIVES made it's controversial debut a few months ago at Cannes, where it was met with boos by the haughty international press only two years after awarding director Nicolas Winding Refn the best director prize for DRIVE. While not unanimously negative, many of the reviews leaking out of the festival noted that if DRIVE was Refn's attempt at adopting a mainstream sensibility, ONLY GOD FORGIVES was him doing just the opposite. Having finally seen it for myself I can say that many of the people who adopted Refn as the new Michael Mann after DRIVE will absolutely despise what he does here. However, if you're a little more familiar with his earlier work, such as the PUSHER trilogy and VALHALLA RISING, you may not be quite as taken aback.
Speaking for myself, I really liked it although not as unconditionally as I did DRIVE. This is a bleak, ugly film (not literally- the photography is gorgeous) but the ninety minute slow boil adopted by Refn certainly did a number on me, and it's hauntingly effective if unpleasant. If DRIVE had it's surreal moments, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is absolutely jampacked with them, with it even adopting a kind of David Lynch-ian (or more likely given the onscreen dedication Alejandro Jodorowsky-style) vibe here and there, mixed with Asian-action genre it plays hommage to. More than once during this film, I was reminded of a line from John Woo's HARD-BOILED where a character says “give a man a gun and he thinks he's invincible, give him two and he thinks he's god.”
Clearly Vithaya Pansringarm's character, the invincible Lt. Chang thinks he's God, and they way Refn shoots him he may not be far off. Certainly he's no mere mortal, walking through the notoriously crime-ridden streets of Bangkok putting right all of the things he deems to be wrong. Sure, he'll allow a grieving father to kill his daughter's murderer, but he'll also hack off that same father's hand (with his ever present sword) for allowing his daughter to fall into prostitution. Pansringarm, who's had blink and you'll miss him roles in movies like THE HANGOVER 2, isn't being billed as the star, but certainly this is his movie more than it is Gosling's. A small, middle-aged man with a paunch, Chang doesn't seem too dangerous at first glance, but appearances are deceiving in Refn's world. Just like how he made Albert Brooks a bad-ass in DRIVE, he makes Pansringarm a brutal force of nature, terrifying whether he's torturing a criminal or pausing (as he often does) to sing a heart-wrenching Thai pop tune at a Kareoke bar (with his fellow cops looking on transfixed).
As for Gosling, if people thought he was a man of few words in DRIVE, here he's essentially mute, with only maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue throughout the entire film (Pansrigarm has even less- not counting the singing). Still, Gosling, who's blessed with one of the more expressive faces in cinema, doesn't need much dialogue to convey his character. Julian is a shell of a man. He's not all that bad a guy, but he's thoroughly under the finger of his psychotic brother and mother; played more than than a a suggestion of incest by Kristin Scott Thomas, and heading towards some kind of judgement.
Thomas is probably going to be the one to emerge from this with most of the critical and audience acclaim, as this is a terrific departure from the usual classy Euro-arthouse roles she takes, having her play a trashy American lady-gangster with dyed hair and a push-up bra. The scene where she completely emasculates a mute Gosling in front of his date (to the point of ridiculing the size of his penis) is particularly memorable.
While there's a typical action/crime movie plot about a brother seeking vengeance, for ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn only uses that as a way to examine a Bangkok that's haunted in an almost biblical sense. The photography by Larry Smith (who also shot BRONSON) bathes the Thai underworld in neon blues and deep red's, which almost give it the look of being on fire. More than anything the story seems to be about Gosling's Julian being judged by Pansringarm's God, with his mother embodying a kind of diabolical, satanic presence (it's no wonder one of the first lines of dialogue is “it's time to meet the devil”). DRIVE's Cliff Martinez is back to provide another amazing electronic score, but this one seems to owe more to someone like Wendy Carlos (along the lines of her work for THE SHINING) than the Tangerine Dream-style synth vibe he put across in DRIVE. Also, the only pop songs used this time out are the ones sung in Thai by Pansringarm.
Suffice to say, anyone looking for another DRIVE isn't going to get it with ONLY GOD FORGIVES. This is a dark, experimental film, and if people were wondering why the Weinstein Company was sending this to VOD rather than a wide theatrical release, they'll understand once they see it. While not the most violent film I've ever seen, it's one of the more brutal, in the realistic, disturbing way that something like THE KILLER INSIDE ME was. This is definitely going to ruffle a few feathers, but I'm willing to bet that eventually it'll find it's admirers. Certainly I'm one, although for now I presume I'm going to be in the minority. On the surface the substance seems thin, but if you look past they admittedly flashy style, you'll see that there's something deeper and more profound going on here than you might think.