Film Review: Only God Forgives

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is one of the weirdest, and most fascinating, films I’ve ever seen. From the Guardian:

Imagine a Quentin Tarantino homage to oriental slasher movies but directed by David Lynch at his most elliptical and unsettling.

That pretty much sums it up. The films been widely panned by critics, who, I guess, like movies that make them comfortable. (Maybe these are the same critics who hated Darren Aranofsky’s masterpiece The Fountain?) And so, yes, if you want to be straightforwardly entertained, then this is not the film for you. This is.

But if you want to be seminally screwed with, disturbed, disoriented, moved, confused, and spellbound, then watch it. The story goes something like this: Julian’s (Gosling) brother, who deals heroin with him in Dante’s version of Bankok, rapes and murders a 16 year old Thai sex worker. This sets of a violent chain of events mediated by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police lieutenant/brutal Zen warrior. Enter the third and final main character: Julian’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), bent on revenge.

Describing the film like this, though, makes it sound like a conventional thriller where Mr. Smith pursues incentive A while Mr. Jones pursues incentive B and the point of the movie is watching them struggle. Nothing could be less accurate: there are vast stretches in which the story recedes into the background and we’re left to wonder at long, slow-moving shots of red-lit hallways and Bangkok sidewalks, backed by the weird, throbbing taste in music Refn put to such good use in Drive.

The cast, for what it’s worth, is superb. Most of the acting is (extremely subtle) body language: looks, breaths, pauses. What dialogue exists is minimal and pivotal. Rarely will someone say something unimportant. Gosling is creepy, sad, and tough all at once; Thomas is stunningly effective as his mother (basically Hamlet‘s Gertrude); and Pansringarm gives perhaps the most subtle performance of all, a sort of anti-Darth Vader, quiet and terrifying.

Critics have complained that this film is pointless, the pretentious flaunting of an over-indulged director, and I guess everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even critics. I can’t articulate what fascinated me as I watched this movie; all I can tell you is that I couldn’t look away. Watching Only God Forgives felt…new. I did not know what I was watching; I did not, and still do not, understand the structure of what was happening to me as a viewer. One thing I can tell you is that plot is secondary: the heat in this film is in its frank brutality (one scene features perhaps the least desirable use of chopsticks imaginable) and its surreal horror. There are many parts where the Who/What/When/Where becomes entirely opaque; you could read this psychologically, and say that the viewer is being shown the inside of Julian’s mind, though there’s no clear indication of where the film’s “reality” stops and the hallucination starts. But I suspect that this kind of reductionist-approach, in which everything about a film is wrapped in a neat package, is precisely what Refn is trying to agitate against in the formal elements of this film. If you’re going to watch it, I suggest trying to watch it on his terms–whatever they may be.

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