Only God Forgives
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Review by Jordan
As Winding Refn’s bluntly violent, neon-lit foray into the Thai underbelly comes to a close, the credits reveal the film is dedicated to the great Chilean expressionistic director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky has proclaimed Refn to be his ‘Spiritual Son,’ and if one compares either Only God Forgives or Valhalla Rising to his ageless El Topo (1970) it is obvious the two share an affinity for placing religious meaning, and old-testament violence into their films.
Eddie’s take of Only God Forgives details the plot our abhorrent characters create through their selfishness, depravity and horrendously misplaced motherly-love, which commences with the murder of a 16 year old prostitute, and ends with a human sacrifice and a very eerie solo vocal performance. It is indeed an interesting story, but I believe the real interest lies with the characters as singular figures, and what motivates them to perform their vicious actions. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a determined police officer with his own brand of justice is indeed the Angel of Death – brandishing his katana he strikes swiftly and without emotion, striking fear into the hearts of the wicked and not erring in his mission to rid the streets of the vile and the depraved. When a man’s daughter is murdered, Chang allows him to kill the monster responsible (the brother of our protagonist Julian), before cutting off his hands for ever allowing his daughter to be in such a vulnerable position. Julian (Gosling) is a conduit, an inanimate object moved through fear of his matriarch mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas, in an electrifying performance) whose hatred for her second-born son leads her to control him and those around him to carrying out her dark, vengeful desires. Late in the film Chang and Crystal meet in a defining moment; is it good or evil that eventually prevails? And what is lost in the meantime as the conduit goes about his duties?
I’m sure there will be a lot of disappointed cinema-goers who feel this is a step backwards for the Refn/Gosling partnership, but I am proudly in the minority who believe it to be better than their previous collaboration, Drive (2011). Sure, there is no Ron Perlman, but the brutality here feels more justified, and there is no attempt made for iconic status or broad appeal as there was with the Driver’s scorpion print jacket and the casting of Carey Mulligan. There are shades of Kubrick and early Gaspar Noe (especially I Stand Alone, 1998) in the way Refn has constructed, scored and lighted this film, and the effect is not lost on an avid lover of those two masterful directors.
It is icy cold, and you won’t walk away feeling completely satisfied, but such is the intention; Refn and Gosling aren’t asking you to like Only God Forgives, but to endure it, and perhaps appreciate the symbolism and visceral excesses on display.
4.5 ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’ out of 5