In recent years, Nicolas Winding Refn has earned his reputation as one of cinema’s most daring formalists. His slick, neon-saturated aesthetics masterfully set the stage for the sensorily heightened, lyrical world his characters inhabit. Refn characters generally follow a specific set of behavioral instincts: they move as if in slow-mo, they prefer looking to talking, and they’ll transition from observation to action in an instant. Refn exclusively tackles genre material; it is his authorial stamp that elevates it from B-movie pulp to art.
In Only God Forgives, Julian (Ryan Gosling) – a respected gangster in the Bangkok underworld – manages a Thai boxing club and smuggles drugs with the help of his brother Billy. After he rapes and butchers a prostitute, Billy is violently killed at the request of Bangkok’s all-powerful police boss, martial-arts expert, and swordsman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a merciless platinum-blonde drug queen, soon visits Julian, looking to avenge the death of her son. And Julian reluctantly finds himself forced to pursue Chang in a hellish showdown.
Only God Forgives has been criticized for prioritizing style over substance. But this is an axiomatic misunderstanding in the reading of Refn’s picture. Indeed, the movie is not narrative (style supports content) in the classical sense; it is surrealist (style as content) in its very nature. The film not only showcases an insert of an eye being cut (an obvious homage to THE surrealist oeuvre Un Chien Andalou), but it also ends with an inscription dedicating the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, influential experimental filmmaker from the 1970s (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) who considers Refn his ‘spiritual son’.
Consequently it is crucial to recognize Only God Forgives as a picture of patterns, symbols, behaviors, and icons as opposed to one of story, character, and plot. In that respect it differs from its more mainstream predecessor Drive. Whereas Drive was a dreamy (albeit violent) fairy tale about a prince saving his princess, Only God Forgives is a spiritual nightmare about one man looking for God (Julian), and another who acts as God (Chang). Refn invokes a recurring image of Julian’s tense, clenched fists – be they on guard, or tied to a chair by a prostitute as he receives a lap-dance. They demonstrate Julian’s inability to communicate, to open up. Julian very rarely touches anyone willingly, except in a fantasy scene, in which his clenched fists loosen to caress a prostitute’s body. Even then, they quickly tense back up to bash in a man’s head soon after. Julian is plagued; he can express himself only through acts of violence, through the pounding of his fists on others’ bodies.
Ryan Gosling delivers a magnetic performance. Consistent with the surrealist tone of the film, Gosling becomes more of an archetype than any definite, individualized, realistic character. Julian is a mirror image for any man looking to find himself. On the other side of that mirror is Chang. Pansingram plays him with the same minimalism as Gosling, but with a greater and more accomplished sense of purpose. Kristin Scott Thomas brings a very different energy to the picture, counterbalancing Gosling’s silences with vulgar dialogue and raw, aggressive behavior.
Nicolas Winding Refn and DP Larry Smith carefully craft engrossing and powerful visual environments. The colors are spellbinding, drawing the viewer into the film. Cliff Martinez’s score further builds this mesmerizing effect— his slow-moving compositions flowing seamlessly.
Only God Forgives’ highly stylized violence is gruesome, crimson, and powerful. But the violence is a very organic part of the picture’s thematic concerns and its inevitable resolutions. Thus, it is not gratuitous, but undeniably fetishistic. This film is sure to shock and repulse a sizable part of the audience. But Nicolas Winding Refn promised it all with the title: Only God Forgives. The picture is an unforgiving journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche, from which only something holy could ever save its characters.