Nicholas Winding Refn’s talking-piece, blasted at Cannes and now viewable by the regular public in theatres and VOD, from these eyes is less the ‘pretentious exercise’ or ‘remarkable disaster’ as described by many critics than a bold audacious Tarantinoesque throwback exploitation picture told with Kubrick-influenced compositional perfection and a strong touch of Asian bombastic grandiloquence.
Only God Forgives (2013) dir. Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
The latest cinematic punching bag is no doubt Only God Forgives, a film almost universally reviled for Refn and Gosling going to the well one too many times, burdening us with its staid pacing, unemotive performance from Gosling and over-the-top stylish flourish. It’s hard to argue against that, but I’ve no doubt after Mr. Refn’s career is over we may just look back on Only God Forgives as an audacious experimental masterpiece pushing the boundaries of Refn’s bold minimalist aesthetic to arrive at this truly confounding yet hypnotic euro-exploitation picture.
Enjoyment of this film requires audiences to give in to the Refn’s cinematic hypnosis, a unique and clearly divisive tone and mood which carries us through the strange gangster underworld and family-ties of Refn’s kooky characters.
Though very little of this comes through in dialogue and exposition, as far as I can gather, Gosling plays Julian an American living in Thailand who runs a boxing ring, which also serves as a front for the drug trade business. His brother Billy is a sadistic maniac who rapes and kills a young girl, a horrendous act which sends the monumentally imposing Thai police chief Chang (aka the Angel of Vengeance), played with allure by Vithaya Pansringarm, to seek revenge on Billy.
Enter Billy’s mom, Crystal (Scott-Thomas) who arrives in Thailand seeking her own vengeance for her son’s death. She tries to rope Julian into this but with his strange sense of honour, he can see justification for Billy’s death. Thus a complex three-way circle of vengeance plays out between Chang, Crystal and Julian. Gosling is less the hero than the man of conscious caught in the middle of the two warring Machiavellian figures of Crystal and Chang – both of whom exhibit qualities of humane sympathy and imposing menace.
Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) shoots most of the film at night bathing his frames in bold neon colours, a visual style which brings to mind Gasper Noe’s equally deranged magnum opus Enter the Void. It’s a delicate and daring cinematographic choice best seen on the big screen. High definition television (VOD) on which I saw the film can barely hold the extremely contrasting lights, darks and saturating colours.
The nearly mute performances, not only from Gosling but Thomas and Pansringarm as well, serves to extract the audience out of the need to follow along with plot, instead inviting them to tap into the mood of the picture and experience the film on a sensory aural/visual level. The celebrated violence indeed causes a skirmish moment or two, but nothing out of bounds with other comparable exploitation flicks, especially from Asia.
Thus emerges Refn’s modus operandi, his desire to tell a fairly standard Asian revenge film but with the unconventionality of his Scandavanian roots. Refn boldly succeeds in spite of the critical maiming he’s been receiving from the global press. But among the detractors look for the handful of critics and viewers (like me) who revel in Refn’s latest cinematic extravaganza.