Review: 'Only God Forgives'

By: Heather Seebach

South Koreans have long cornered the market on elegant revenge thrillers, but now Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has thrown his hat into the ring with the very stylish and very divisive Only God Forgives. More than just another Oldboy, this one uses the revenge template to present an aesthetically-stunning film that plays like a Shakespearean drama or Biblical allegory. Refn and lead actor Ryan Gosling last teamed up for 2011's Drive, but if you are expecting another Michael Mann love letter dripping with 80s flare, you will be very disappointed. This one brings to mind the works of Kubrick, Lynch, and Jodorowsky, so if those are more your speed, then look no further.

Julian (Gosling) moved to Bangkok to escape his violent past, and now operates a kickboxing gym (while dealing drugs on the side). When his deviant brother rapes and murders a young girl, it sets off a chain of vengeance that pulls Julian and his manipulative mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the crosshairs of a corrupt Thai cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). 

In the hands of another writer/director, Only God Forgives could have been a standard revenge tale, but Refn continues to impress with his distinct visual style. Not only is the film beautiful to behold, but Refn constructs a dreamlike atmosphere that supports all the twisted subtext in his script. Most of the film is drenched in a red hue, with specific scenes in yellow (and the far less common blue). The color filters are clearly deliberate, so I found myself constantly trying to de-code their meaning and pattern throughout the whole film. 

 The film moves at slower pace than most, but it's far from unbearable. Dialogue is scarce - particularly from the protagonist - but Refn's imagery says it all. The use of light and shadows, Kubrick-esque tracking shots, and Cliff Martinez's stellar synth score effectively build dread and character. This calm is often broken by brutal acts of violence (though no worse than what we saw in Drive). 
Refn lays the symbolism on thick - there are enough shots of hands in this movie to make even The Master (Manos: The Hands of Fate) nauseous - but it works. It may be heavy-handed (ba-dum-tish) but hey, nobody ever accused Refn of subtly. And if the title wasn't already an indication, the film has a Biblical element to it, but it's relatively subtle (unless you're looking for it). 

In the lead, Gosling is fine but doesn't especially stand out. He plays the stoic but disturbed Julian appropriately. He is no "Driver" here. Pansringarm, however, is the real bad-ass of the movie. He moves like a ghost without effort or care, striking down enemies with ease and cool. Still, it is Kristin Scott Thomas who steals the show. The actress is barely recognizable as the Lady Macbeth-esque mother, whose relationship with her son is distinctly Oedipal. She is a nasty piece of work and thankfully gets most of the film's dialogue. 

Only God Forgives is a textbook love-it-or-hate-it movie. It is not an easy movie, but it is a gorgeous one. While I can see why some might consider it derivative of other filmmakers, or purely style without substance, I must disagree. The film has layers I have only begun to scratch, and Refn's visual style is distinctly his own. The combination of a slow pace, subtitles, a mostly Thai cast, and extreme violence may make it difficult to swallow for some people, but these elements draw me closer to it. The more I think about it, the deeper it digs into my brain. Whether your initial reaction is anger or awe, this film will undoubtedly be discussed and debated for years to come.

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