Review: Only God Forgives

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Only God Forgives

When a filmmaker is present at a screening of his or her movie, often the audience is extra-passionate with their applause at the end of the film. But as the end credits rolled for Only God Forgives, a stunned silence fell. After a few moments, some audience members recalled themselves and applauded enthusiastically, but when the house lights were raised I could still see many dazed and confused faces.

What is Only God Forgives? What goes on in the brain of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn? If you're expecting Drive, shut that down right now. If you're hoping for another Bronson ... no, but you might be partially prepared for the surreality. Only God Forgives isn't like anything else I saw this year. Did I like it? I have no idea. Was it good? It was vivid and disturbing enough to stick with me for days, and you can't discount a film that does such a thing.

Only God Forgives opens with the scenario that Julian (Ryan Gosling) is running a Bangkok boxing club as a front for some drug smuggling, which he's been doing since he killed someone ten years previously. His brother is murdered, and their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Hong Kong demanding that Julian avenge him.

This sounds like the setup for your standard stylized crime movie, perhaps with a lot of fighting in and out of the ring. You can practically see that kind of movie unfold in your head after reading the setup. And you would be entirely wrong, to the point where I'm not sure telling you about the setup does any good.

For example, I haven't mentioned Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the administrator of justice in this setting. A prostitute is killed, and Chang allows the girl's father to take revenge on the murderer, but then punishes the girl's father for his actions. Later, he is forced to seek information from some unwilling men in a brothel, and ... that was one of the moments where I stopped peeking through my fingers at the violence and actually shut my eyes briefly. He is neither a criminal nor a lawman, but a force of nature. And yet Pansringarm plays the role coolly, as though Chang were your next-door neighbor, one with a taste for karaoke bars.

The other force of nature in Only God Forgives is Julian's mother, Crystal, almost a caricature in comparison with Chang. To say that Kristin Scott Thomas plays against type is a gross understatement. She is unbelievable and unforgettable, almost fairytale-like in her evildoing. And I mean the old scary fairy tales, not the whitewashed ones. (If Once Upon a Time ever needs a new evil queen, they should talk to Thomas.)

In comparison, Julian is the eye of the hurricane created by these two forces -- and as such, is one of the least interesting characters in the movie. He is meant to be something of a cipher -- he says little, he seems almost affectless and he has peculiarly passive sexual habits. Eventually we receive information that may help us understand him, but it's difficult to be at all engaged by his character. That might be intentional, but it feels like the movie has a huge sucking hole of blandness when Gosling is its focus.

Only God Forgives relies heavily on visuals and sound to provide subtext, but the subtext is either blatantly obvious or perplexing. Rooms are saturated with a single color, often red or blue, thus attaching particular importance to scenes lit naturally. The sound design integrates with the score beautifully, enhancing tension through what we hear and what we don't.

I was concerned that the violence might be too much for me, since several people warned me about it beforehand. The story contains many violent acts, but we rarely see the act itself -- usually only the aftermath. I did a lot of peeking through my fingers, but was never so freaked out that I had to stop watching (except for that brief eye closing, because there are certain types of violence I find especially daunting).

Only God Forgives is surreal and disturbing -- a day after seeing it, I still felt disturbed and off-kilter. Its highly stylized scenes and editing often teeter between fascination and artificial weirdness for its own sake. Still, the balance left me fascinated and engaged.