Movie Review: Only God Forgives
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn admits to having a fetish for violence. Anyone who has seen his movies “Bronson” or “Drive” would have no trouble believing that statement. The filmmaker’s latest, “Only God Forgives,” exemplifies it.
The moody and hushed film uses Shakespearean and mythological allusions to explore one man’s existential crisis as he works through deep-seated issues he has with his mother.
Rendered in obscuring blacks and reds, the film serves as a journey into a tortured soul (or two). It drips with blood, both literally and figuratively, but the filmmaker spends little time trying to untangle the assorted viscera through which he leads the audience.
Refn has teamed again with his “Drive” star Ryan Gosling, and the Canadian actor’s performance here is even more subtle, almost muted, than his role in the 2010 breakout hit. Women (and men) longing to see the chiseled heartthrob take off his shirt and glisten with macho dynamism will likely be disappointed.
Despite the fact that his Julian runs a Muay Thai boxing gym (covering for a drug operation) in Bangkok, we rarely see the actor exert much physicality. Most of his sweating comes in response to the pressure of a god-like antagonist and Julian’s devilish mother.
Early in the film, Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke) — for no apparent reason except for the fact that he is battling some sort of mom-and-control issues Julian faces later in the movie — brutally murders a 16-year-old Thai prostitute. Following the harrowing act — the first of many that may leave traditional moviegoers covering their eyes — Billy sits and awaits his fate. Whatever is going to happen to him will only affect his physical body; his soul already dead.
A mysterious retired police boss named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who’s repeatedly referred to as the Angel of Death, arrives and unilaterally decides that retribution should be paid to Billy by the prostitute’s father. But revenge is not as simple as it seems. After the father kills Billy, Chang cuts off the man’s arms for allowing his daughter to descend into such an unseemly life.
That is the kind of justice Chang exacts — swift, violent and with zero remorse or empathy. There is no moral relativism at play in Refn’s world. Chang’s primary weapon of choice is a long singular blade that he removes from his back, almost as if drawing it from his spinal cord, before slicing his victims. It is one of many abstractions in the film that challenges the audience to believe if what they are seeing is real or metaphoric.
After hearing of her oldest son’s demise, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives and the deep weirdness begins. She commands her son to get revenge for his brother’s death by killing Chang. When Julian expresses reluctance, his mother looks for outside help. But not before excoriating and emasculating Julian in one of the most bizarre scenes you will see this summer.
Julian brings a beautiful Thai woman named Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) to dinner with Crystal. Agitated and perhaps threatened by the young woman, Crystal attacks Julian’s manhood, both figuratively and literally. Thomas, who usually plays stuffy upper-crust period-piece characters, embraces the role with perverse relish and performs on a frequency no one else approaches.
When Chang catches wind of Crystal’s plan to eliminate him, he beats her to the punch in a sequence of domino-style acts of vengeance that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. The bloodshed reaches its denouement with Julian finding some measure of peace in his troubled and complicated relationship with his mother.
The bouts of violence are interspersed with surreal images of Chang singing melodramatic karaoke songs in a club in front of a group of police officers. Is this a version of God weeping due to his heavy burden or a symbol of the apostles worshipping at the foot of this angel? Or simply bizarre irony that a man of extreme violence can exhibit such tenderness? Refn never makes things clear. His world is a heightened collage of symbol and slaughter that doesn’t make for a clear or compelling narrative.
Cinematographer Larry Smith, a crew veteran of “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining,” brings elements of Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking — slow tracking shots, hypnotizing color palettes — to create a maze-like film that is at once claustrophobic and boundlessly expressionistic, like a Rothko painting.
Despite the proliferation of universal themes of God, forgiveness, vengeance and familial drama in “Only God Forgives,” Refn spends most of his time exploring his obsession with violence, as the talented Gosling is relegated to little more than window dressing in this surrealist genre film.