Any seasoned viewer of alternative cinema should be familiar with the work of Danish auteur Nicholas Winding Refn by now. He is the creative mastermind behind several highly acclaimed features that defy tight genre-defining boundaries and any restraints that are generally associated with modern avant-garde cinema. His first feature, the 1996 merciless crime thriller, Pusher, drew in a momentous fan following and paved the way for two sequels, With Blood on My Hands: Pusher 2 (2004) and I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher 3 (2005)—both of which he directed—as well as a pre-mature UK remake of Pusher that was released in 2010, with Refn on board as executive producer. He then went on to create two more hits of varied reception, Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009)—the latter of which elicited an uproarious choir of critical acclaim.
As fate would have it, he joined creative forces with screenwriter Hossein Amini to adapt John Sallis’ novel, Drive, to the silver screen. Perhaps more importantly, his adaptation of Drive also signified the official beginning of an exceptional working relationship between director and film star: that of Refn and Ryan Gosling. I suppose it only makes sense that such an opportune bond would form between one of the most gifted filmmakers and one of the most esteemed young actors of the current times. The merging of Refn’s remarkable off-screen aptitudes and Gosling’s highly effectual, yet peculiarly subtle, on-screen persona transcends the majority of today’s professional ties within the film industry—both inside and outside of Hollywood. Following the primarily positive reviews of Drive, released in 2011, news of another Refn directed, Gosling-starring work of potential cinematic brilliance was all the rage.
Already having seen and thoroughly praised Bronson and Valhalla Rising, it was the trailer for Only God Forgives, currently in select theaters and on Video-On-Demand from Radius-TWC, that struck me harder than any other trailer I had viewed within the past six or so months, and actually motivated me to watch Drive for the first time. To summarize my overall feelings of Drive, I was absolutely enthralled by it. I’ll leave it at that while encouraging anyone and everyone to watch it. I’ve digressed tremendously, so onto the topic at hand.
Refn has once again strategically placed Gosling front and centre of the intricately orchestrated carnage that inevitably ensues within his films. This time around, he’s taken on the role of Julian: an externally hardened version of the driver in Drive, evidently suffering from some severe familial issues. Julian manages a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his family’s drug trade. But before we get to know anything about him, we’re introduced to a psychotic, pedophilic rapist who we eventually learn is Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Billy goes to a local pimp in search of a prostitute and, unsatisfied with the selection of beautiful Thai harlots that the pimp has to offer, proceeds to try and bargain with the pimp as a means of getting him to offer his youngest daughter. The pimp refuses and so Billy decides to take matters in his own hands in order to satisfy his own depraved desires. Refn leaves most of the details of this particularly brutal affair to one’s imagination—that is to say that we’re given enough of a glimpse of the aftermath to know how truly brutal it is—but he does so as a method of setting viewers up for the vengeance fueled ultra-violence that is yet to come. And without giving too much away, I will say that the bloodshed and savagery is copious throughout the film.
Refn ups the ante of Only God Forgives with the introduction of one of his most diabolical characters to date—Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas). A brilliant example of how Refn is able to take character stereotypes of linear genre films and invert them. In a basic film Noir or gangster movie, Crystal would be the typical male drug lord or mob boss—albeit, as the matriarch, she still fits into the superficial profile of that particular character type. She’s chauvinistic, cruel and egomaniacal; the quintessential villainess. As is the case in the bulk of Refn’s work, there are no heroes in Only God Forgives—only anti-heroes and every character in this film is drastically flawed. Julian wants to be the good guy but he’s obviously torn between familial obligation (I.E. intimidation by his mother) and righting the wrongdoings of his brother by failing to take any genuine action against those who sought vengeance against him. He believes that what his brother did was wrong and that he deserved the punishment that was served. Julian is only one of two primary anti-heroes in the film; the second being Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm)—a member of the Bangkok police force who takes vigilante justice into his own hands.
Only God Forgives is truly a breathtaking sight to behold: a work of pure, unabashed aesthetic exquisiteness. The color contrast, the saturation of deep reds and greens, the Asian symbolism and the invasive illumination of Bangkok’s night life; the long still shots (reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining); the photographic essence of the cinematography; the voyeuristic effect of peering out through doors and in through windows, taking in all that is oblivious to our gawking eyes; the juxtaposition between Julian’s deep, sorrowful gaze and matriarch Cystal’s horridly brash demeanor. Refn’s greatest virtue as a filmmaker is his ability to aptly assemble a five-star cuisine smorgasbord for the occipital senses. His flair for superseding what he has deemed unnecessary excess dialogue with elegant long still shots and an emphasis on muted character expressions magnifies the hypnotic affect of his films. Refn has exceeded his already proven ability to craft a film out of the primordial elements of motion pictures arts—strictly, images. It’s refreshing to be spellbound by a film without the encumbrance of gratuitous dialogue, and Refn never fails to deliver in that regards.
My only real criticism of Only God Forgives is how Refn merely scuffs the surface of some taboo themes that I feel could have been explored further for the purpose of substantiating the polluted nature of the characters and their relationships. It is evident that there is a history of incestual relations between Crystal and her sons, but I’m left wondering to what extent, as it obviously had some sort of effect on Julian and Billy’s sexual identities (Julian being closed off and seemingly afraid of intimacy, and Billy being a depraved sexual predator). I also would have liked to learn more about Julian’s pseudo love interest, the stunningly gorgeous Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). I suppose some things are better left to the imagination. And perhaps if Refn would have gone into further detail about these characters and their sordid histories, the artful effect of mystique would have been sacrificed. Refn’s abilities are presented in full-force in Only God Forgives, and it will undoubtedly concrete one’s appreciation of his work.
– By Lacey Paige
Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter @LaceyPaige88