Nicholas Winding Refn, the enigmatic filmmaker whose interests and obsessions as a storyteller lie in perceived male masculinity, the destructive nature of man and the beauty in said destruction and violence, tells another tale of men involved in violence and their disposition to it as well as the women who influence their perceptions and decisions. My review of Only God Forgives after the jump.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug dealer living in Thailand who operates his dealings through his and his brothers boxing ring. Things hit a sour note however when Julian’s brother is murdered, resulting in the arrival of his insidious and cruel mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). She wants the head of the man who killed her son and the policeman who allowed it to happen. The policeman in question, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the judge, jury and executioner of the story; he judges those based on their crimes and it’s at his mercy whether they deserve to live, much like God. Julian’s business is in jeopardy, as is his soul. He’s haunted by his brother’s actions and by his mother’s unpredictable destructive wrath. Morality will be questioned, blood will be shed, but the one question to be asked among all this is: Is forgiveness enough to redeem what remains of their souls?
Refn is known either as the guy who made Drive or the Danish filmmaker who continuously tells the story of men committing evil deeds (which results in brutal violence). Only God Forgives confirms his perceptions of violence and male masculinity. Refn isn’t interested in the tough guy with the gun, he wants to tell us about the man with the sword, the one clinging on to a moral stance that protects the lives of the innocent and his own. Almost always, this particular gentleman does not look tough nor strong, and that’s the point – they’re the ones who alter the perception of masculinity. It isn’t how tough you look, it’s the acts you commit in order to restore the balance. Chang is the hero, he is god, Crystal Is the villain, the devil and Julian is us, the uncertain.
Only God Forgives is a performance and aesthetic driven narrative, dialogue is sparse and merely a bridge for the narrative. It’s movement and tableaux that define the characters and their moral stance. Those performances are something special. Everyone is at the top of their game, letting their expressions tell us who they are. Pansringarm in particular is equal parts terrifying and assuring as, well..God and he only lets us in with one stoic expression, yet it’s more than enough. His character being the hero isn’t one you champion, you don’t champion any of these people or their actions throughout, it’s more pleas for mercy than anything the film will obtain from us. Chang’s character is so sadistic, so impatient with the evil committed by these characters that the silence the film revels in is the ‘forgiveness’ in the film’s title. The lack of dialogue and Chang’s brutality go hand in hand, it doesn’t matter what’s said, it’s more so what’s committed. Much like forgiveness, declaring it is one thing but carrying it out is another, words are almost redundant.
In relation to the opening paragraph, women in the film are causes for actions, they don’t simply exist to camouflage with the beautiful set pieces, they exist on their own terms and define the moral stance both Julian and Chang stand for. Chang’s brutality is a result of his drive to maintain a safe world for his young daughter. Crystal’s influence is the evil in Julian, yet he spends the film defying it, he’s a decent person struggling with the evil within him… And dialogue barely informs us of any of this. It’s the women in the story who establish the two male protagonists yet serve as protagonists themselves. Films dissecting violent masculinity or the perception of, tend to forget the influence women have on violent, immoral men.
Don’t let the beautiful yet restrained cinematography, the extreme violence and lack of dialogue fool you, this isn’t an arthouse fluff piece that exists for looking pretty. This is the ultimate morality tale between a mother, a father and a son, who despite age or wisdom acknowledge the world as a cesspool of decay and irrational cruelty. However, like their apparent disjointed metaphorical family, they are still trying to maintain that a soul is within them and that they’re capable of love, but an unforgiving world prevents them from doing so.
Forget heroes, forget villains these are people who no matter their moral strand stare such categorisation in the face and simply utter, “Wanna fight?”
By Chris Elena
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Writer(s): Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Gosling
Runtime: 89 minutes
Release Date(s): Australia: July 18, 2013