Meeting with the Devil

Only God Forgives (Radius-TWC)     ★★★½

Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Let’s dismiss one misconception.  This thing ain’t Drive leftovers, and although it may be difficult to NOT look for a quasi-sequel amongst the flooded red lights of Only God Forgives, you’re unlikely to find such a thing.  While Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s minimalist aesthetic found ravishing success with Drive in 2011 (feel free to sing the praises of star Ryan Gosling, who upon being casted, handpicked Refn for the job), the release of his follow-up has received a stabbing wound of critical hate, not without the occasional praise of brilliance, but with a far more divisive general opinion (it received boos at Cannes, but a standing ovation by some audience members, as well).

While this is understandable due to the vast challenges of the film’s construction, audiences and critics seem to believe that the movie is meaningless, pretentious, arthouse dribble – a slow-moving, brutally violent piece of nothing. I understand … this isn’t an easy film to like. But it’s equally hard to ignore, not necessarily in ambition, but by the skill displayed in every frame of this maddening thriller. What it amounts to is simply something most won’t enjoy seeing. Oh well … I dug it.

Most aspects that were streamlined in Drive (which was based on a novel by James Sallis, and adapted by Hossein Amini) have been removed in favor of upping the ‘arthouse vs. genre film’ ante, displaying elements that mostly made Refn’s prior movie such an exciting work. In Only God Forgives, we are faced with intricate shot design, deliberate pacing, super-contrasted lighting, exceedingly saturated color schemes (Refn is partially color-blind; he can’t see mid-colors), little dialogue, a consistently-maintained atmosphere of terror, and brooding suspense that is sporadically unleashed as extreme violence.  But most importantly, Refn’s use of cinematic language is simply unique.  The way he conveys information to an audience is interesting.  These are simple words to throw around in film criticism, but when applied to visual language, you know you’re in for something that will test you, and hopefully thrill you with ingenuity.

Only God Forgives has middling success. What Refn gives us here is obviously much closer to his own hand, more similar to the Mads Mikkelsen-led Valhalla Rising than say, recent efforts such as Drive (although Gosling remains the lead) or Bronson (which may be his finest work, co-written with Brock Norman Brock).  The film may be partly what is claimed by those who hate it, but it is also partly that other thing … brilliant.  It is also immensely, undeniable refreshing – the anti-summer popcorn flick.  As soon as it was over I wanted to see it again, and for this time of year, that means something.  You can make the claim that this is ugly, artsy trash, but it certainly isn’t disposable. 

Its maker has claimed that the Bangkok-set film (the on-location setting doing wonders for the movie’s atmosphere) is comparable to a Western, with a ‘modern cowboy hero’ becoming intertwined in a Far East revenge story.  In Drive, Gosling gave a superbly restrained performance as such a hero, the unnamed ‘driver’ who must withhold his dreams for a normal life in favor of such a resonant niche.  Gosling’s performance here can barely even be called restrained – it’s minimalist to the extreme.  He wears the same expression for most of the film, shielded tension building up within him until it is unleashed at select moments. 

In doing so, he fulfills Refn’s own niche for the character; I wouldn’t necessarily call Julian, a boxing club owner who fronts drug dealing, a ‘cowboy hero’ in the assumed sense; his revisionist ‘man with no name’ character actions are rarely fueled by blind courage or abilities, and he does not simply ‘wander on’ after they are completed.  There are moments when the so-called dangerous American certainly does redemptive things, but for the most part, he has no greater calling, and although pressured in the opposite direction, rarely partakes in sacrifice that isn’t for the sake of his own life or peace of mind. 

This might be his own form of revenge or a plague of weakness, but either way, he is no ‘driver.’  He might be good at something, but he is far more dangerous for what he is not good at.  This is because he reflects such self-consciousness within his choices, by which nobody surrounding him is safe, except for the force he begins to realize cannot be beaten.  Is this, essentially, Julian breaking free of his life-long tie to the devil?  Seeking penance, perhaps, from the only ‘god’ present within this hallucinatory nightmare?

The film’s title, through little interpretation, tells you that no person forgives, and that is certainly true in a spiritual sense; the movie’s only sense of forgiveness is taken in blood.  I won’t explain too much else about the narrative, other than the fact that Kristin Scott Thomas is terrific as Julian’s mother, who manipulates he and his brother with an odd, sexual power and ‘mob momma from hell’ mentality; meanwhile, the main antagonist to the family (insinuated by a rather brutal, early series of events) becomes Lieutenant Chang, the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ (Vithaya Pansringarm), a god-like police enforcer who uses a samurai sword to enact justice over the domain he considers his own. 

While also taking inspiration from a like-brand of Asian revenge moviemaking, Only God Forgives, in many ways, follows the mantra of many horror films, as well.  Terror slowly builds (aided by Cliff Martinez’s terrifically haunting score, which pretty much sounds as you would expect) until it is unleashed as violence.  Going back to the movie’s visual construction, the story here is told mostly through the poignancy of the long-held images themselves, and their juxtaposition within chosen sequences, which usually blend multiple locations, periods of time, and perceptions of reality (at least from Julian’s point-of-view).  Characters often loom in the center of the frame; there are also few scenes not shrouded in shadow or crimson light.

This isn’t remarkably entertaining or engaging entertainment, and its artistry doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the sheer craftiness of it, or explore new depths with unprecedented profundity.  Many will also find moments silly and ridiculous, but as Refn has said, the film exists within a heightened reality.  It’s a dark fairly-tale land that audiences will find comparable to a depraved state they have never experienced, quite detached from reality and its inhabitants, but visualizing ideas and emotions that personify the most primal of human urges – the sexual and the violent.  As Refn has also stated, art itself is an act of violence.  The look and feel of Only God Forgives is an accomplishment in itself.  The rest will come to those willing to stare it in the eyes and dare not look away, even when ‘nothing’ is happening. 

Consider the movie its own form of hell, and Refn, its director, as the devil.  Judgment is placed within the audience’s hands.  So I suppose we all know where that places us – in the highest seat, looking down upon supposed humans, and wondering what possibly went wrong.  The choice to forgive them is solely your own, an opportunity to play god in Refn’s sadistic fantasy world.