Nicolas Winding Refn has gone on record to describe himself as a “fetish” filmmaker. Violence is chief among the subjects that Refn fetishizes. It’s inheritent in every film that he’s made: the PUSHER trilogy, BRONSON, VALHALLA RISING, and DRIVE, in particular. It’s no surprise that Refn chose to center ONLY GOD FORGIVES around the passions and consequences of violence.
The comparions to DRIVE are inevitable. So, let me preface with this: do not expect ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be DRIVE 2. Do not expect this to feature dance tracks from the Italians Do It Better record label. Do not expect this to be as approachable as DRIVE.
This film is darker, colder, personal and more calculated than Refn’s previous. Gone is the love story that was the core DRIVE’s story. Revenge is the motive that drives our characters in ONLY GOD FORGIVES. With that, Refn asks the audience to observe these events from a fixed distance.
Set with Bangkok as the backdrop, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), to find and kill the person responsible for his brother’s death. Even though Julian is our protaganist, it’s the supporting characters that set this film’s events into motion: Crystal and Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The contrast between Crystal and Chang lends to the film’s dynamic. Crystal is vengeful and wears her hatred on her sleeve. She puts a hit out on the killer, not bearing any consequences in mind. She won’t feel better about herself until the killer is put away permanently. You could easily imagine her as a mafia leader’s wife in the U.S. Kristen Scott Thomas, known for her high society roles and period-piece films, plays Crystal with unabashed contempt. It’s a joy to watch Thomas take on the dirtiest character that she’s ever played. Chang is the stoic, neutral, calculated police lieutenant. He only speaks when it’s necessary, he’s never seen in uniform, his presence is felt everywhere, and he carries a concealed sword everywhere he goes.
Chang is a man that believes in consequence. Julian’s brother, Billy, brutally rapes and kills a 16-year-old prostitute. Chang allows the girl’s father to beat Billy to death. Chang is also a father. He allows the beating because he understands how a father would feel knowing their child was murdered. However, Chang cuts off the father’s arm as a consequence for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute — the lost appendage as a reminder that he lost a close family member. Chang is the true menace in this film and his scenes are engrossing. He is, by far, the film’s most interesting character. Pansringarm’s performance is comparable to Albert Brooks in DRIVE. You’ll wish he had more scenes.
Gosling’s “Driver” character in DRIVE was the epitome of cool. Silent, mysterious, masculine — along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name.” Gosling’s character in this film is the opposite. Julian’s still silent, but he’s submissive, impractical and, sometimes, unreadable. He tends to wander or languish in his settings — he’s more of an empty shell than a true character. Essentially, Julian’s the least interesting character and it hurts the film a little bit.
Refn’s visuals have always been his strongest asset. Bangkok is photographed in a way I haven’t seen before: bathed in vibrant neon reds, blues and pinks. Refn’s use of color lends itself to scenes in seedy strip clubs, hotels and back-alleys — almost taking on a nightmare quality when combined with Cliff Martinez’s brooding score. I admire Refn’s practice of eliminating dialogue to draw more attention to the imagery. His shots are composed like a painting, asking the viewer to scrutinize every inch of the frame to decipher the intent. It’s always about the frame.
However, the film does feel empty on the heels of DRIVE. It’s evident that Refn was responsive to Hossein Amini’s love story and cool protagonist in DRIVE’s screenplay. When Refn takes the reigns as writer and director on a project, his take is usually very personal. I applaud Refn for following up an acclaimed, approachable film with something more experimental. He’s divided the film community and audiences, but it can’t be denied that he’s a talented filmmaker. I’d imagine the critics that consider this to be “misfire” are still very keen to see his future projects.
If you’re looking for a challenging film that doesn’t dumb anything down for it’s audience, then this is it. If DRIVE was your introduction to Refn’s work, you might want to go through his filmography before you watch this. Regardless, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a fascinating film. A lot of it works, some of it doesn’t. But it’s definitely not a film to be tossed aside or taken lightly.
*** out of ****