By Alan Mattli
The following review was originally published as a printed article in the newspaper Die REGION on 25 July, 2013.
At the Cannes Film Festvial, the audience jeered; now most critics whole-heartedly join in: Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up feature to his 2011 neo noir thriller Drive, is widely regarded as an abject failure – for shame.
Misplaced expectations might be the main reason for the sometimes vitriolic, often scathing reviews, hopes for a kind of sequel to Drive, another stylistically brilliant, emotionally resonant variation on the formulas of the American action and thriller genres, harking back to pioneers by the likes of Sam Peckinpah or Martin Scorsese. But Only God Forgives is of a different breed altogether: poster star Ryan Gosling, the undeniable centre of the Danish director’s last film, barely speaks more than twenty lines of dialogue; while as a character, he is clearly subordinate to the largely unknown Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm. Meanwhile, one look at the movie’s credits is enough to see that Refn works with a whole other range of cinematic influences here. The film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose works (El Topo, La montaña sagrada) are renowned for their surreal, symbol-laden imagery; a “special thanks” section at the very end includes Gaspar Noé (Seul contre tous, Irréversible, Enter the Void), who regularly challenges his audiences with scenes of shockingly blunt violence.
The more familiar, and thus, comparatively comfortable, world of the American crime film, on the other hand, has effectively vanished in Only God Forgives, save for a few notable, mostly formal exceptions. Gone are the “Mean Streets” of New York and Los Angeles; the setting now is Bangkok, Thailand’s hellish capital, where Julian (Gosling) runs a Muay Thai club as a front for his drug dealing business. After his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute, police inspector Chang (Pansringarm) allows the victim’s father to avenge her. This prompts Crystal (the astutely anti-typecast Kristin Scott Thomas), mother to Julian and Billy and mafia matriarch in the tradition of Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, to fly in from the US to witness how the reluctant Julian exacts revenge on Chang.
In this regard, too, Refn defies audience expectation. On its surface, Only God Forgives may seem like a crime drama but beneath it lurks an uncompromising, surrealistic horror film with all the disturbing violence, the bizarre dreamscapes, and subtle references the genre implies (the most distinctive nod pays homage to the Buñuel/Dalí masterpiece Un chien andalou). Within this framework, protagonist manqué Julian plays an interesting double role. He is, on the one hand, the personified “crisis of (stereotypical) masculinity”: his attempts to dominate the opposite sex are as desperate as they are futile; his borderline incestuous relationship with his mother seems built on her scolding and taunting him. He is frequently shown staring at his hands, foreshadowing his confrontation with Chang, where their potential power fails him and he is unable to even graze the enigmatic police officer.
So Julian is an ultimately impotent, even castrated devil – an association hinted at by the satanic logo adorning the wall of his box club –, who is outrivalled by the merciless Old Testament God Chang (a stellar performance by Pansringarm), who judges, tortures, and kills with clinical precision – and then sings about his inability to forget in haunting karaoke sequences. As the movie’s title suggests, he is the only one who is able to forgive. But of course, he doesn’t.
Refn frames this rich symbolism with his consummate cinematic vision, which, despite the numerous links to other works, is wholly his own – the stringent colour palette, which is dominated by imposing neon shades of red, blue, and yellow; the flawlessly composed tableaux, each a towering example of Refn’s sheer directorial mastery. Some people will nevertheless leave the cinema auditorium, perhaps even before the credits roll, shaking their heads in disapproval. But in provoking this reaction, Only God Forgives, the courageous and glorious creation of an unflinching, radical visionary, has once again proven that controversial art is often also the best.
★★★★★½ (out of six)