When writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn decided to dedicate his blood-drenched, surreal crime film, Only God Forgives, to Alejandro Jodorowsky and gave special thanks to Gaspar Noé, it should have been a sign that the film was going to dramatically split audiences' reactions before he even submitted the film to Cannes. Here's where I fall on that spectrum: Only God Forgives is about as pure and perfect a neo-noir film as I've ever seen, giving us a tragically broken anti-hero, a supporting cast of genuinely, disturbingly evil characters, and a free-floating amorality where right and wrong are redefined with every new kink and twist of the plot. It's a nihilistic world these characters inhabit, but all three main characters, boxing club manager/drug dealer Julian (Ryan Gosling), his vicious, manipulative mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), and unflinchingly moralistic police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm ) have very clear ideas about justice, loyalty, crime and punishment — none of which easily lines up with what a mainstream audience is going to find relatable, or possibly even justifiable.
The impetus for the story is the brutal rape and murder of an underage prostitute by Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke). Rather than arresting him, Chang allows the girl's father, Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul), to beat the emotionally empty expatriate to death, and then as punishment for letting his daughter work as a prostitute, he cuts off Choi's arm.
When Refn says that the film was conceived as a Western in the Far East, this is what he was talking about. The Bangkok of this film is not lawless, but the law is freely interpreted by Chang in a manner reminiscent of an old west sheriff. In Refn's Bangkok, Chang is not just the law; he is a living manifestation of Justice. He is the unflinching shore upon which Julian and Crystal batter themselves as each tries to live up to the moral standards that define them.
For Crystal, everything is simple. She is the source of power for her family and her will is not to be questioned. Any hesitation expressed upon receiving orders is seen as weakness and must be punished – both psychologically and physically. Thomas' performance here is magnetic. She is the energized core of every scene she plays, echoing her character's role in the family. She is brutal and horrible; a force of nature that has never met an opposing force capable of withstanding her.
I was not a fan of Ryan Gosling's performance in his previous team-up with Refn, Drive, finding his minimalist approach wasn't supported by the weak script. What should have been silent intensity seemed more like a learning disability and Gosling didn't seem to be able to express any internal workings.
While his approach to playing Julian here is similar, Refn's script provides him with loads of motivation and he is very effective playing the emotionally and psychologically devastated son of a monster. His attempts to do the right thing are surprising and when that comes into conflict with his mother's orders, it leads to a very subtly played personality dissolution as he comes unmoored. The psycho-sexual tension in all of their scenes together is especially unsettling for both his helplessness and her hostility.
The centerpiece of the film, Julian's boxing match with Chang, reveals everything about both characters through the physical action. Dialogue isn't necessary and Refn knows it. In this film, the people who speak the most, Crystal and her henchmen, are the ones desperately grasping for power and control. Chang's methodical take-down of Julian, turning his face into a bruised and bloody pulp, is representative of Julian's moral quandary when faced with Chang's unbending justice. His beating is a form of penance.
Maybe the only form of penance possible in this world.
Ultimately, as the title says, only God can forgive. And in Bangkok, Chang is God.
Visually, this film is a beautiful blending of Drive's neon pallet and Valhalla Rising's lingering silences, thanks in no small measure to the cinematography of Refn's Bronson collaborator, Larry Smith. This should come as no surprise, as Only God Forgives was originally planned to be the follow up to Refn's beautifully surreal Viking drama before he was recruited to direct Drive. As such, Drive almost, but not quite, slots into Refn's oeuvre, disrupting the natural, organic progression in themes and character work from Bronson to Valhalla Rising to Only God Forgives. Drive had more thematic and stylistic connection to Refn's earlier Pusher series — particularly the first Pusher — and the director did everything he could to bend the material to his needs.
However, I think the unexpected success of Drive has skewed perceptions of and expectations for what Refn is doing with Only God Forgives. Re-teaming with Gosling has only helped to further those misconceptions. This is not a film filled with colorful characters and a flawed, but morally singular protagonist. It's not a heist film or a typical crime film. It also lacks that crowd-pleasing soundtrack that helped to sell Drive to a wider audience than anyone had anticipated.
There's a strain of critical thinking that equates verbosity with depth. While there's a great deal of film criticism that focuses, rightly, on the visual storytelling, that's literary criticism. Movie reviewers are a fickle, shallow lot, and a lot of them are missing the artistry on display with this film, sometimes responding with offense and/or open hostility. That says more about the reviewer than the film.
What we have here is a beautifully realized neo-noir that unapologetically stays true to Refn's thematic and artistic vision without concerning itself with mainstream sensibilities. This film doesn't care if you don't get it or hate it as it slides seamlessly from violent reality to guilt-ridden dream with an ease that would make Lost Highway-era David Lynch proud.
Only God Forgives is a brilliant knife edge slicing cleanly through a soft, white belly.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available for at Amazon US and UK along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation, also at Amazon US and UK. He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One and Two. Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.