Friday, July 26, 2013

Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Winding Refn Delivers another Art house-Style Crime/Drama

The film's opening scene establishes the viewer in a shady Bangkok underworld, effusing with drug smuggling, under-aged boxing matches, little to no dialogue - sans some Thai subtitles - and heavily under-lit shots. It's disorienting, rather than establishing. But director/writer Nicolas Winding Refn has already made a name for himself, cultivating independent films designed for a niche audience with an interest in aesthetic camera work that very often strays from mass market appeal.

Only God Forgives is no exception.

Winding Refn's last film Drive (2011) exemplifies the director's versatility, enveloping genres of a love-story and crime/drama in what many dubbed "art cinema." Or take, for example, his 2008 film Bronson, a violent tale of a convict in solitary confinement, with an alter ego who enjoys opera. While his films are arguably stylish, they have often been labeled as "style with no substance." However, it is not to say the former does not produce the latter. Though Winding Refn is often accused of focusing on aesthetics for lack of thought-provoking substance, his films speak visual volumes.

Only God Forgives is visually arousing. It pulsates with saturated colors - reds, yellows, greens - that bleed from the walls and room decor; the shadows are so dark and infinite, they lend an oddly nightmarish serene-like vibe as the film's protagonist walks past them in long tracking shots; and the sculptured masculine motifs help us illustratively arrive at the film's plot-line.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) and brother Billy (Tom Burke) are drug smugglers, running a drug ring in Bangkok, Thailand. When Billy is killed for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl, Julian and his crew pursue the men responsible to avenge Billy's death. Julian's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a degenerate person in her own right, flies in from the states to watch her son take revenge for the murder of her first-born.

The film is a silent spectacle of meticulously staged sets, an easily unobserved supernatural and religious element, a stoic protagonist who eerily glides out of the shadows without word or, more apparently, context, and, we the audience, are forced to surrender a part of understanding or even identifying a narrative structure for being desensitized spectators watching sadist acts and having great patience in watching them slowly play out. But it's usually worth it.

Winding Refn has crafted a true villain with Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the corrupt cop who ordered Billy's murder. Winding Refn creates a Bangkok-noir type of climate, where officials like Chang have as deep a blood lust as the criminals they torpedo after (His motto should be "to protect and sever"). The director makes a point to juxtapose Chang's violent exhibits with poignant karaoke sessions. Chang's stage spotlights him like a suspect lineup as suited officers watch with a restrained disposition. But, as the title of the film implies, he's ultimately in control.

To convey Julian's character, Winding Refn indiscreetly plants macho paraphernalia everywhere - the workout stations, the murder tools, the fist-clenching and well endowed statues - that serve to remind Julian, and us, of his masculinity and tests his mental and physical limit to uphold it. His lack of facial expressions and the film's lack of close-up shots create an emotional distance that is perhaps necessary for such a film that lacks a true sense of the word "hero." Julian doesn't truly seek revenge; he seeks forgiveness for his past.

Winding Refn, focuses on extended arms and hands throughout the film - a symbolic reminder of sin - i.e.: fighting poses, clenched fists, mundane acts like hand washing, or just awkwardly outstretched as if searching for meaning. This representation may reflect religious struggles Gosling's character faces in understanding his environment. He is consumed by his peccadilloes.

The film, as mentioned, is mostly silent. To attempt to answer the underlying question of "style over substance" might be rudimentary at this point, but necessary. Winding Refn's images narrate themselves. The film's gritty and dapper mise-en-scene create it's own text. The film's story-telling lies in the dexterous hands of cinematographer Larry Smith, production designer Beth Mickle and the rest of the art and costume crew. The film's tale of revenge, masculinity and Freudian motivations reads clearer off the decor than the subtitles.

To some this might come across as an unfinished film (such as the guy sighing throughout the whole move which made me want to pull a Chang on him), but to a pair of diligent eyes, it comes across as something to examine. It's work, but the studying pays off if one wants to try to understand the plot.

This is not to say the film reserves its nugget of knowledge for an elite few. Only God Forgives is far from cinematic gold and may come across as presumptuous at times. Does Winding Refn fail to introduce Gosling's character and develop his arc or does he bravely entrust in us the challenge of figuring it out ourselves?

Winding Refn is no pioneer in the screenwriting department, but at least his films are always entertaining, if not, at least, pictorially rewarding. Only God Forgives won't be rewarding for everyone, but to say a lack of substance is the main flaw of the film, might mean a second watch is necessary.

Rating: B+


  1. Nice review, Cristina. I didn't love the film, but found it interesting as well as visually stunning. I've been hit or miss with Refn so far, but one of these years he's going to nail everything and give us something we'll be talking about for a long time.

  2. Thanks Erik.
    I didn't love the film either, but greatly appreciated the attention to detail in it. I've only seen three of Winding Refn's films and think each one is better than the last.


  3. Hey Cristina. I hope you're still writing reviews, you've been quiet for a while.

    Anyway, I've nominated you for the Sunshine Award -