Much has been said about Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent film Only God Forgives; critics’ opinions have been vastly polarising to say the least, ranging from a rave five star review from Peter Bradshaw to claims that the film is a perfect example of style over substance. The film divided critics in Cannes prompting walkouts and booing as well as standing ovations. I, however, feel that Only God Forgives is one of the best films of the year.
Set in the dangerous Bangkok criminal underworld, Only God Forgives focuses its story around drug dealer Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling). After his brother was beaten to death after he killed a child prostitute, Julian is forced into following a course of retribution by his mother (Kristen Scott Thomas). Meanwhile, Julian is being followed by a police officer (who represents an avenging angel figure) who has been murdering criminals with a brutal swift of his samurai sword.
The visual style of Drive is brought to Only God Forgives with great effect. A tinged red neon light plays a strong role in the glorious visuals of Only God Forgives. The red and blue neon lights, the stunning production design and incredible cinematography make for a wonderful visual treat as director Nicolas Winding Refn attempts to make the light reflect on the screen as perfectly as possible. Only God Forgives is a film that is utterly beautifully constructed by a man with an outstanding taste for visuals. The composition of each and every single frame is glorious, the red neon lights of the corridors add to the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, uneasiness and tension which is made even more overwhelming by the brutal nature of the film’s ultraviolence.
Only God Forgives is a film that the majority of the audience will have come out of with strong opinions on; some will be astounded by the mesmerising visuals, others bored by the lack of characterisation or even plot whilst others will be repulsed by the excruciating ultra violence on the screen. The violence certainly is very strong, graphic and bloody. It is almost impossible not to flinch or look away, but the bloody violence has such a strong powerful effect on the audience that they wait for next explosion of pornographically brutal violence. This makes for an overwhelming and uneasy feeling which makes Only God Forgives a gripping and utterly compelling, overbearing and powerful experience.
Ryan Gosling first teamed up with Nicolas Winding Refn in the highly acclaimed Drive in which Gosling was most noticeable for his dark, silent and moody performance. With limited dialogue the effectiveness of Gosling’s performance was measured on his facial expressions (or lack of). In Only God Forgives he is given even less dialogue and is required to be even more silent and moody, Gosing pulls this off well. Supporting him is Kirsten Scott Thomas who is utterly superb as the gangster mother. With an icy voice and a sheer manipulative personality Kristen Scott Thomas’ Crystal Thompson makes a pulsating and terrifying villain. In the avenging angel role is Vithaya Pansringarm whose corrupt Lt. Chang makes for a menacing character.
Looking at themes of conscience and guilt the perfectly designed Only God Forgives may not have much in the way of character or plot but it sustains an overwhelmingly uneasy atmosphere due to the film’s flashes of ultraviolence. Gloriously designed Only God Forgives is a visual masterpiece and one best films of the year.