Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm
Review Written By: Michael Dalton (Prime Minister)
It is hard, if not impossible, to talk about Only God Forgives, without comparing it to Drive. The director (Nicolas Winding Refn), star (Ryan Gosling) and composer (Cliff Martinez) of Drive all reunite for Only God Forgives, a film that allegedly drew both booing and applauding following its first screening at the Cannes film festival. Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing ring in Bangkok as a cover for a drug operation alongside his brother Billy (Tom Burke). One night, Billy decides, ‘It’s time to meet the devil’ and proceeds to rape and kill a sixteen year old prostitute. A policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the prostitute’s father to take bloody revenge on Billy, making both men a target of Julian and Billy’s evil mother (Played by Kristin Scott Thomas) who arrives in Thailand to grieve and through her youngest Julian, avenge her first born son.
Drive is one of my favourite films of all time and swept the first ever Movie Parliament awards. Therefore I had high expectations for Only God Forgives, however had been well informed to not expect a sequel to Drive. Drive was an arthouse film that became a cult classic and touched upon part of the mainstream audience that until then had been unfamiliar with the work of Nicolas Winding Refn. It takes a film like Only God Forgives, to demonstrate exactly why it was that Drive was so beloved and why a film like Drive works the way it does. At its core, Drive is a romantic superhero movie and Only God Forgives makes Drive look like the warm, fuzzy hug that film really is. Forgives is a much nastier and more ambiguous film than Drive.
As is to be expected from Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives looks fantastic. The cinematography by Larry Smith is moody, haunting and echoes the beauty and brutality of the film. The production design by Beth Mickle is also worthy of notation, from the hellish halls of the boxing ring, to the humble farmhouse of Chang and the modern skyscraper of a hotel, in which perhaps the film’s true villain resides. Refn is a pure and true filmmaker, in the sense that he elects and prefers to tell much of his story through visuals and music. This approach that results in some rather muted performances, particularly by Ryan Gosling, can be found artsy, pretentious, self-indulgent and infuriating by some. Yet refreshing, admirable and even soothing by others. However whatever you may think of the film’s story and performances, there is no doubting that on a visual level, this is one of the year’s more accomplished and memorable films.
The story is just as simple as Drive’s yet much bloodier and in a sense, much more challenging. Refn blurs the lines of reality in this film in a way he didn’t in Drive (Or at least does it much more overtly here) leading one to question what is actually happening and what may be playing out in Julian’s evidently disturbed mind. There is clearly much symbolism on display here that warrants repeat viewings, with much foreshadowing present in the first act in retrospect. Essays could be written about what characters in this film represent, with this film, like Drive, having more density than many will give it credit for. I haven’t put all the pieces of the puzzle together yet, but it’s all about Ryan Gosling’s hands…
The film is perhaps the most violent I have seen all year, not in terms of the volume of violence but the brutality of it. There is one scene in particular that is one of the more gruesome and disturbing pieces of violence I have seen in a cinema, creating an audible and visual reaction amongst my audience. Some may find the violence problematic and perhaps weightless, however nobody can argue that Refn’s scenes of violence don’t effect you in some way and in my eyes, that is how a scene of violence should be handled and delivered.
Ryan Gosling gives a performance that is even more silent and subtle than his one in Drive. Some are growing tired of Gosling doing this kind of performance, however I personally continue to find it powerful and effective. Although perhaps it is because these recent performances of his are creating a shy boys fantasy, in which we can imagine our quietness is just as charismatic, mysterious and powerful as Gosling’s. As was noted by Arnaud in his review, Julian is not a heroic character and is worlds away from ‘The Driver’ Reminiscent of Norman Bates, Gosling’s Julian is a conflicted character who appears to think his brother got what he deserved, yet feels duty bound to follow the instructions of mother. When a Thai prostitute asks why Julian lets his mother speak to him the way she does, he reacts violently, grabbing her by the throat and saying, ‘Because she’s my mother’ There’s an implied incestuous relationship with the scenes between Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas containing much underlying, unspoken tension. Scott Thomas has the film’s showiest performance as the mother, gifted the film’s most memorable and sickening lines. Upon learning that her eldest son raped and killed a sixteen year old her response is, ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’ Vitahaya Pansringarm is in many ways the star of the film as Chang. He has a silent, honourable strength and intimidation that lead him to dominate every scene he is in without having to mutter a word.
Ultimately Only God Forgives is a challenging, sickening film that is certainly not for everybody. It is slow and its 90 minute running time doesn’t fly by, whilst the moral ambiguity of all the characters doesn’t given the audience a traditional figure to latch onto. The violence is brutal and the story simple yet symbolically elusive, resulting in arguably a simultaneously shallow, superficial yet frustratingly unattainable experience in regards to narrative. It is for these reasons why many may struggle with and hate Only God Forgives. However I personally found the film to be among the best released so far this year, with it getting better and better as it progresses, reaching a conclusion that displayed and encapsulated the beauty and brutality of the film. It isn’t Drive, however accepted on its own terms, Only God Forgives is an interesting and memorable piece of work.
Movie Parliament Rating: MAJORITY GOVERNMENT (What does this mean?)
By Movie Parliament Prime Minister,
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