It takes something special to make a big splash at the Cannes Film Festival, but director Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) hit upon one sure-fire technique this year: lash your film with almost unreal amounts of gore. Only God Forgives was booed off the screen at the festival, mauled in first-look reviews, and come release, is suffering from similar treatment at the hands of the general press. It is noteworthy, however, that among the many one and two star reviews, and indeed zero star reviews in places, there are glaring exceptions, full-marks given, from those critics who were not blinded by a bit of blood spatter.
Only God Forgives is, indeed, a superb, menacing, enthralling film, shot with meticulous attention to detail. It does not patronise the audience in any way, allowing them to work out their own interpretations of the variety of psychological phenomena the characters exhibit onscreen, and uses dialogue only where Refn feels it totally necessary. The film is violent in the extreme, yet does not glory in it as detractors have claimed; instead, lingering shots on horrific wounds serve as a grand warning, and at time visual representations of characters’ subconscious thoughts and desires.
The film follows the story of a mysteriously exiled pair of American brothers in Bangkok, running a sparring school as front to deal drugs. Julian, played with tragedy and anguish by Ryan Gosling, is forced into a series of confrontations with the threatening retired police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) after his brother has a fatal interaction with the Bangkok underworld. Pansringarm’s performance stands out for its horrific serenity, as emotion is continually shut out of his perverse methods of justice. Another extraordinary turn comes from Kristin Scott Thomas, venturing out of her perceived comfort zone of mannered characters to inhabit Julian’s manipulative and awful mother.
The film progresses languorously at times, but quite deliberately, and Refn is not afraid to be ambiguous – the sequence of events and the relation between shots cut together is frequently uncertain. The plot progresses in a clear manner, though, and in any case is almost a secondary concern, for the film is shot with such utter mastery of light, symmetry and framing, care of cinematographer Larry Smith, that its beauty alone would carry it well. A scene as simple as Julian leaning against a doorframe is turned intimidating and foreboding by the light-play and claustrophobic invasion of black space, and Cliff Martinez, also returning after Drive, provides another synth-based soundtrack which provides a pulsating beat behind the horrific action unfolding. The lead-up to Julian and Chang’s fight in a gym, in slow-motion and dappled in red light, while the soundtrack bubbles with ominous low notes, is as slow as a mainstream film is ever going to move, yet also quite completely captivating, if not downright awe-inspiring.
It is important that a film as complex as this, one which is not content to have a by-the-numbers plot and an ending which is easy to predict, is viewed appropriately and patiently. After leaving the cinema having seen Only God Forgives, so long as the violence is not an unconquerable issue, almost all viewers will want to talk about it; not, however, to say “Wasn’t it sweet when that robot punched that dinosaur in the face, bro?!”, but to wonder about the meaning of Refn’s use of a shot at one point, or why Julian chooses to do certain things and not others, or why his mother spouts such odious language. Only God Forgives intrigues and mystifies and fascinates in a way which recalls far more niche pictures like Berberian Sound Studio and the Three Colours Trilogy, but has a chance to capture a bigger audience, riding on the waves of Drive’s coolness and success, and the star-power of Gosling and Scott-Thomas. It is a film undoubtedly worth seeing, and worthy of repeat viewings.