Release Date: July 19, 2013
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
MPAA Rating: R
Sitting in the theater at the LA Film Festival’s Gala screening of Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn gave a preface to the audience before letting the film roll. “I’m a pornographer, (audience laughs) and I like to make things that really excite me. So if Drive was a drug experience, I’d say that it was like the best cocaine you’ve ever had, and lots of it. With this film, I wasn’t so much interested in cocaine as I was into LSD. Not the kind of LSD that makes you really happy and want to have a lot of sex and stuff like that, but the kind of LSD that makes you see really crazy things that aren’t there, like sitting in the armchair and you just totally melt into it, you hear voices telling you really important things, you know, stuff like that.” I am paraphrasing only slightly, and though he gave a very lengthy and intelligible Q&A at the end of the film, this may have been the most honest thing he had to say about his film. That’s because it’s raw, dirty, dark, and hard to hold in your hands. In fact you have the feeling that although you are completely and darkly fascinated, you should keep a safe distance.
Only God Forgives will let you keep your distance, because for everything that happens in the film, from rape and prostitution, to avenged murder and clearly mismatched combat, as grizzly as it all is, the film keeps its distance as well. Perfectly composed shots highlighted in a primary palette (director is admittedly colorblind to midrange colors), there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that suggests at naturalism in this film. You have entered a symbolically steeped and visceral landscape of the digital image. Its cold and discreet, yet all encompassing. An influence from Michael Mann is present, and in the same token David Lynch, which anyone will identify once the see the amazingly porcelain scenes of the “Angel of Death” singing center stage in a spotlight, most often after having restored some demented sense of balance to the world. Yet, as the credits of the film will note, Refn’s relationship to Alejandro Jordorowsky is of particular interest. The film is dedicated to the El Topo director, a film Refn notes as being the most influential for all of contemporary pop cinema.
Characters do not so much interact in this film as they act and react. Performances are delivered from the ugliness in each character, an enormous feat for actress Kristen Scott Thomas, who needed a vocal coach to be able to deliver the phrase “cum dumpster” with ease. This is a great example of the kind of contrast which every character bestows on the screen, no matter how vile the events are (or the intentions), there is such a restriction in the expression of each role that there is a type of glassy finesse achieved as a result. Almost everything is contained. Its the kind of bizarre experience that shows little beneath the surface, leaves many faces blank to express, if anything, a lack of emotion or humanity, and as a result, you are left half shaken, and half coldly unaffected. Only in Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) weakest moments in the film are we able to, with the help of some very clear editing, understand the world of his inner psyche. His one moment to attempt to express clear power, screaming orders to his prostitute date in the street, is filled with a shrill sense of inability to control his own destiny. His rage sounds childlike and immature, an effect of the devouring mother who has come to pervert him even further.
One of the most satisfying roles in the film is played by a stunningly smooth and graceful Vithaya Pansringarm, who holds a 5th degree Black Belt in Kendo, the art of Japanese Fencing. After the opening scenes reveal that Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke) savagely unleashes violence on prostitutes, Pansringarm enters the story through the guise of an ex-cop, simultaneously pursing justice, an Angel of Vengeance and Death, but with means that are completely above the law. The sheer sound of his blade in the soundtrack is a character in its own right, and the shrill metallic tone of it is a kind of voice for the entire film. If you go to see this, do not expect to be seeing a film that is like Drive. What you can expect is a highly crafted film with an exquisite score and perfected cinematography that will challenge you and encompass you in the same breath. You will not leave this film unaffected.