Take a deep breath, everyone! In through your nose. That’s it. Hold it for ten seconds. Now exhale. Good, you’re now prepared to hear my thoughts regarding Nicholas Winding Refn’s followup to one of the 21st century’s most unparalleled cinematic achievements: Drive. I know, I know. You want me to get down to brass tacks. “Is Only God Forgives better than Drive?” I’d say absolutely not, but that doesn’t take away from this film’s astounding beauty — both on a technical and thematic front — nor does it lessen my love for Winding Refn as an auteur filmmaker. If anything, I think I’m closer now to understanding this diabolical genius than I was with Drive, which might be the film that least captures Refn’s singular style (for better or worse).
Before the Gala screening last night, Refn made an analogy comparing the two films. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically called Drive a night of the best cocaine you’ll ever have, whereas Only God Forgives is that incredible college acid trip where you become the immobile chair in the room. Aside: Refn swears he’s never taken drugs before (which I believe since his movies don’t have a blurry aesthetic to them). But what I’d say is that if Drive was a rock concert, then Only God Forgives is an opera. The film is heavy on violence but not consistently so, making it more of a blood ballet than a straight-up blood bath. Meditative, unpretentiously abstract, and euphoric in large doses, Only God Forgives may seem like a David Lynch film crossed with the Spaghetti Westerns of the Far East, but its balance of chaos and serenity unequivocally make it a new kind of heightened cinema: The Refn kind.
The warring themes in Only God Forgives are innumerable: East vs. West, Masculine vs. Feminine, Duty vs. Morality, Mother vs. Son, Family vs. The Individual, Jealousy vs. Love. You’d imagine such ambitious juggling would overwhelm Refn and his style, but the auteur manages to compact and interweave these various motifs seamlessly. On hand to help is composer Cliff Martinez, who took a classical approach with Only God Forgives’ score by systematically breaking the film into emotive segments, from which he’d then create applicable leitmotifs. The instrumentals applied are as soothing and hypnotic to the ear as you’d imagine, but the blaring use of pipe organs takes the genre-undefinable romp to a much darker, creepier place. Martinez’s score makes the underbelly of Bangkok, Thailand feel like the lair of Nosferatu. The vibrant reds and black-as-night shadows only enhance the hellish vibe of the film.
Cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) does the great Geoffrey Unsworth (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey) proud with his masterful camerawork in Only God Forgives. His center-framing pronounces each scene as one of undeniable significance. His hallway tracking shots, pull-backs, zooms and close-ups are a thing of formal beauty. You truly feel like you’re watching a Kubrick or Coppola film in the 70s, the decade when classical filmmaking had reached the zenith of technique. Even more so than Kristin Scott Thomas’ ravaging performance, it would be a damn shame if Smith’s work in Only God Forgives was snubbed for “Best Cinematography.” I sincerely doubt we’ll witness stronger work in the field this year. It’s easily the most impressively shot motion picture since Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.’s work in The Master (which, go figure, was also snubbed).
I know what you’re all thinking: Does this movie even have a story, or is it simply a Greatest Hits album of legendary filmmakers and their ideas all jumbled into one film? Contrary to reports from Cannes, Only God Forgives does have a narrative on hand. In fact, the most surprising takeaway from the film is that despite its esoteric makeup, the plot itself is extremely easy to follow. That’s a testament to the strength of Refn’s minimal yet able-bodied script, which fits snugly into the labyrinth of enigma that pervades Only God Forgives. On the other hand, I didn’t have anything to ponder with after the credits rolled. It’s weird to say this, but Refn actually could’ve taken the plot to a higher plane of ambivalence. Many will probably scratch their head as to why the film ends the way it does, but if you follow the breadcrumbs Refn leaves for you in plain sight, the answer is right in your rear view mirror.
I don’t want to spoil the specifics of Only God Forgives‘ story, its twists and the character arcs that occur, but it’s essentially a revenge flick. Now before you shout “TARANTINO RIPOFF!”, I urge you to let the artsy and poetic execution of it all soak over you before judging. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American with a dark secret who has escaped to Bangkok and now manages a Muay Thai boxing club with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). The club is used as a front to cover up their drug enterprise, run from afar by their salaciously wicked mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). After the brothers become involved in a murder and attract the attention of the lawless, sword-wielding Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Crystal flies to Bangkok to resolve the debacle. Upon arrival, she finds that Thailand is a different animal than the States, one ready to breathe fire all over her precious family without remorse.
Ryan Gosling’s Julian is of a similar breed to his brooding, quiet Driver character in Drive, though here he’s mostly just petulant and immature. Although Julian has a conscience, I wouldn’t describe him as someone you’d normally root for unless he was Gosling. The lauded thespian gives an effective performance as the nearly-mute Julian, although it isn’t the type of scene-chewing role that gets recognized during awards season. For that you’ll have to turn your attention towards Kristin Scott Thomas.
The best way I can describe Thomas’ role as Crystal is as follows: A profanity-spewing Cruella De Vil crossed with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Every scene Thomas is in has you on edge, wondering what appetite of hers, be it sex or vengeance, will be satiated first. She’s a 40s vamp with the foulest mouth you’ll ever hear in cinema. If you can believe it, a line she shockingly utters actually outdoes last year’s memorable “Argo f**k yourself” and “I’m the Motherf**ker that found this place, sir.” Thomas’ astounding performance is campy yet committed. Crystal is a rapturous force throughout Only God Forgives, a Lady Macbeth-type with calculated wit. I only wish Thomas’ insanely demented reptile of a mother had even more scenes to chew vigorously on. Like Mila Kunis in Black Swan, Scott Thomas might miss a nod for “Supporting Actress” because she simply isn’t in the film enough. Though let’s be honest, Only God Forgives will look like a plate of scorpions when served to The Academy. I doubt they’ll enjoy the film enough to give Thomas a second glance, even though she’s worthy of several accolades as Crystal.
Supporting players Burke and Pansringarm tap into Refn’s dark and insane milieu with great results. Burke gives off this ominous, monstrous vibe a la Michael Shannon just with a look or casual strut. It’ll be fun following his career, as I’m sure his breakout work in Only God Forgives will land more high-profile roles. Pansringarm as Chang is the Eastern blue to the West’s chaotic red. Like the deep blue sea, he can be calm and tranquil before quickly transforming into a deadly entity that obliterates without prejudice. Chang delivers swift justice with his razor-sharp samurai sword, causing even the most weathered of moviegoers to squirm in their seats as they watch his gruesome punishments unfold.
In all, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is an artistic enterprise that I’m sure most, like me, will appreciate immeasurably more than flat-out love to pieces. What makes Drive something special is that it’s a visceral experience that still manages to draw your sympathies toward its roster of players, be they villain or hero. With the exception of Gosling’s Julian — and even then that’s debatable — there’s no character in Only God Forgives that you can say, “Okay, even though I hate what they do, I can’t help but like them.” Crystal is entertaining, but “like” is too kind a word to describe my feelings for her. Perversity and evil rule the day in Only God Forgives, but Refn’s craftsmanship and poetic paint strokes make you enjoy this denizen of depravity more than you’d imagine. Much like Harmony Korinne’s Spring Breakers, Only God Forgives is constantly on the fringe of greatness nearly every minute of its running time without fully committing to an invasion. If Drive was the masterpiece Refn didn’t anticipate, Only God Forgives is the experimental venture to get back to that same level of zen. And it nearly comes within reach.