Only God Forgives (***½)

only_god_forgives_ver6Oh boy…Drive, this is not. Nicolas Winding Refn is back in his Bronson/Valhalla Rising type comfort zone with Only God Forgives, a hybrid flick if ever there was one. Personally, as much as I adore his most recent film, I was left just as cold by those earlier works. Here, he’s threaded the needle and made something that can appeal to fans of both types of movies. Only God Forgives is a hyper stylized and super violent revenge tale that’s told in about as flashy a way as is possible. Again using star Ryan Gosling in a way most filmmakers wouldn’t, Refn subverts expectations and has the actor essentially turn in a silent performance (if you thought he didn’t talk much in Drive, just wait). Along those lines, he also gives Kristin Scott Thomas a supporting role very much unlike anything you’ve seen before from her. Along with Gosling and Scott Thomas’ work, Vithaya Pansringarm also is very memorable, continuing Refn’s tradition of eliciting strong performances from his cast. I still can’t quite decide if this is a silly movie made oddly beautiful by Refn’s direction or if it’s a would be masterpiece made too obtuse by Refn’s writing. Perhaps the truth ultimately lies somewhere in between. Aside from Gosling’s presence and a terrific score by Cliff Martinez, Refn has made something that is a bit off in all regards from his last film.

Getting into the plot suggests a very different flick than the one you actually get, but here goes nothing anyhow. Set in Thailand, we are introduced to the main players. There’s Julian (Gosling), a drug smuggler who operates the family business with hi brother Billy (Tom Burke) out of underground boxing ring in Bangkok. There’s also Chang (Pansringarm) a cop with a very strict moral code, as well as Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Scott Thomas), who runs the show from America and arrives on the scene when Billy is murdered after indulging in some pretty sickly behavior. It quickly is apparent that not only is Chang responsible (though he didn’t kill him) for the death, even though Billy is hardly a saint, but that Julian doesn’t necessarily have it in him to avenge his brother, something that Crystal doesn’t appreciate one bit. After insulting Julian and his prostitute girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), Crystal sets out to have Chang disposed of. The thing is, that proves harder than expected and Chang returns the favor by slowly but surely laying waste to all of Crystal’s liutenants. Soon, it’s down to Chang, Crystal, and Julian, which finally gets the meeker son to step up. Thus leads to the line “wanna fight?”. From there on, things go in a very different direction than you’d expect them to…

only-god-forgives-8We all know how big a fan of Ryan Gosling that I am, and here he does something unique, even for someone like myself who’s seen all of his work. Here Gosling is, as mentioned above, barely speaking, and I’m not exaggerating here. There’s maybe 25 lines of dialogue spoken by his character, if that. It’s a fascinating performance, anchored in minimalism, though one could argue that it’s out of place with this material. I wouldn’t say it’s one of Gosling’s best performances, but it is very solid and interesting to hold up to the rest of his career. Kristin Scott Thomas is obviously the one with the buzz surrounding her performance, and while she’s quite good here, ultimately I don’t think she’s in line for an Oscar nomination. There’s just not enough here, as Scott Thomas almost is simply turning in a cameo performance. In all the ways that Gosling is quiet, she’s loud here though, so it’s an interesting dichotomy. The third main role is filled by Vithaya Pansringarm, who has the most bizarre role by far. Pansringarm is sort of a combination between Gosling and Scott Thomas in terms of the type of acting on display, and it makes for an intriguing trio. The supporting players include Gordon Brown and Byron Gibson, along with the aforementioned Tom Burke and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, but it’s really all about Gosling, Pansringarm, and Scott Thomas.

Nicolas Winding Refn is in overdrive here. His direction and writing are clearly headed back towards the style that Refn utilized in his filmography prior to Drive. That’s not to say that his last flick is mainstream by any stretch, but while he only directed that previous movie and attempted to court a wider audience, this time around he’s back simply trying to please himself. This film is 100% meant to stay in the art house, though that’s hardly a bad thing. Refn’s direction is beautiful here, though some might not dig on the fact that the movie is almost shot in slow motion. His writing isn’t quite as impressive, though that depends on your perspective. Purportedly the original screenplay was far more verbose and had a bigger plot, so the transition to a shooting script morphed this into more of a stylistic exercise. Still, most of his decisions worked, and as mentioned before he again has a tremendous score from composer Cliff Martinez. It’s the one thing I think might actually be on Oscar’s radar, though time will tell there.

With Only God Forgives, it’s clear that Gosling and Refn are not interested in going the Hollywood route with their collaborations. They’re looking to tell unique stories with a very skewed viewpoint, and it definitely works here. I’m sure that plenty of people will hate this flick, as evidenced by the split reaction to the film when it debuted at Cannes, but I for one can wholeheartedly embrace the work. I highly recommend the movie, but with the caveat that it’s really meant for more adventurous audience members. As close as Drive came to being a mainstream piece of entertainment (while still being distinctly indie), Only God Forgives is the exact opposite. I haven’t always liked this filmmaker, but at this point he’s completely won me over and I can’t wait to see what he does next, especially with Gosling by his side…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!