by Matt Smith
The Bangkok of Only God Forgives is a typically cinematic one, replete with whorehouses, karaoke lounges and Muay Thai boxing. The exotic exploitation of the locale and overt orientalism on display is, in other words, exactly what we might expect from a foreigner shooting a film there. And for whatever reason, it never seems outright exploitive other than the fact that the film is about just that. With a half-thought-out thesis about the value of life in Bangkok, a city of skin trades seemingly by default, and the many reasons Westerners are so fascinated by the place, Refn fully indulges in the cinematic tropes and visions that have haunted visitors to the East (and certainly the films made about the East by filmmakers in the West).
Sure, we could all sit around and think about the film as a meaningless expose of nothing at all. As a frame of reference, the Thailand of Only God Forgives is exactly that of The Hangover Part II. Both films traffic and attempt to profit from similar seedy aspects of the Bangkok underbelly. Both are lit like up like a whorehouse, with the constant artificial neon lighting searing absolutely unreal color schemes into our retinas. Each of the films are primarily concerned with the violence of the city in different ways, the illicit prostitution and blood-letting constantly pulling people apart at the seams.
And this film is certainly concerned with making that violence literal. From the very beginning of the film people are cut apart, bludgeoned and gouged. The assault of red blood combined with the candy-colored hues of the purple, pink, blue, and green neon bulbs that seem to sit just outside of the frame in nearly every scene is breathtakingly beautiful. Refn also evokes a tone of sorrow deep within the constant procession of violence and gushing arteries. In many ways he demonstrates that 2011’s masterpiece Drive was the outlier in his cinematic oeuvre, for better or worse. Whereas that film was plot driven as much as atmospheric, here he returns to the elegiac orgies of brutality that characterize the viking saga Valhalla Rising and the Pusher trilogy.
The story is basic, even by the standards of Refn’s previous minimalist works. Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) brother rapes and murders a 16 year-old girl and is killed by her father with the complicity of a Thai police officer, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). When Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives, she orders the girl’s father killed, pushing Julian into a confrontation with Chang that ultimately leads to death for pretty much all parties involved. There is a bit more, including Julian’s relationship with dancer-prostitute Mai, and the life of Chang outside of his involvement in Billy’s death (he loves karaoke), but the real nugget of the story is Crystal’s quest for vengeance and the havoc it causes.
Gosling gives his best trademark brooding non-reactions as Julian, but Kristin Scott Thomas really turns up the heat as Crystal. A character of such biliousness that she makes the notorious Joan Crawford caricature in Mommie Dearest look like a delirious romp through the Hollywood of bygone days. Crystal’s insistence that everyone tied to her son Billy’s death pay with an eye for an eye is uncompromising, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By the time she’s waxing poetic at the dinner table about Julian’s jealousy of Billy’s sizable dick and how sad it is the world has lost its gift in front of his prostitute/date Mai, we are well aware what kind of monster we are dealing with. Vulgar and irreproachable, Crystal is a mesmerizing character given full life by Thomas, who shows that she is at the pinnacle of her abilities as an actress. When death comes to her at the hands of Chang, it is almost a godsend, for we the audience are not sure how much more of the oppressive psychopathic mother we can take.
The film’s tagline, “It’s Time to Meet the Devil,” seems to refer directly to Chang, who is an unstoppable villain, ostensibly doing the Lord’s work. His operating ethos of “an eye for an eye” is terrifying because he is unflinching. When he confronts a character on screen, we know what will inevitably happen, and it does, over and over again. He is truly the Angel of Death come to reap his harvest. He is also the source of much of the film’s violence. Wielding a sword, he slices men apart – removing their hands is a favorite motif – and eviscerates with ease, giving Refn and his crew plenty of time to give us a close-up of the wounds and blood flow. I will admit to no small amount of queasiness on my part during some of Chang’s scenes. That neither he or Gosling demonstrates much emotion suggests a detachment from our understanding of reality that it is almost un-relatable. Beyond the plot mechanics of the vengeance quest, we are given few ways into the film as an audience.
When we are finally given a showdown between Chang and Julian in Julian’s Muay Thai gym, it’s almost anti-climactic. It quickly becomes clear that Julian is no match for Chang on a formal level, and the fight is ultimately a disaster. Our desire to see Julian finally overcome not only his mother’s prodding and contempt, but also his own impulses toward non-action (we are told he is “a very dangerous boy”) that stems from some unspeakable violence in his past, is never fulfilled. Emotionally the scene is cold and distant, reflecting the rest of the film even in the moment that should be filled with cathartic release. As a stylistic embellishment of the movie’s rigidly imposed formalism, I found this fight to be fitting.
The neon-hued images of violence and emotionless rage (how else to describe what Gosling is doing as a performer?) are beautifully rendered in absolutely stunning cinematography by Larry Smith, who previously worked with Refn on Bronson. I dare say there are images in this film I will remember all my life, which is more than I can say about most films. Whether the beaded curtains that leave an unreal ruby-blood-red light refraction on Mai as she dances behind them, the bright-as-day (thanks to the ever-present neon) foot chase through the city as Chang pursues a would-be assassin, or Julian cutting open his mother’s womb and returning to it with his hand (the Oedipal subtext is barely subtext) before the film abandons all hope of a cohesive ending, these are bold artistic images in their own right, and executed perfectly from a technical viewpoint. Whether or not they add up to anything for the viewer is, of course, entirely subjective.
I don’t normally mention a film’s score mostly because I find myself blathering on like an idiot about things about which my only real knowledge of comes from my grade school years as a trombone player in band. The other reason is that so much of the music that is put to film is unforgettable and largely doesn’t matter. Even the heavyweights of film scoring repeat themselves if not directly then at least in the formula of their writing. Think of a John Williams score post-Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark and nine times out of ten, you can hear the familiar instrumentation and bombast creeping in. Ditto Danny Elfman.
But I digress. The reason I bring this up is that Cliff Martinez has given us music that not only goes well enough with the image, but actually enhances it. The synth-heavy score recalls, naturally, Drive’s euro-pop inspired soundtrack, but also relies on ambient tones and an understated driving force that there are early hints of in Martinez’s score for Contagion. This is not to say that some of the music does not come off as personally derivative in Only God Forgives, in that the composer does repeat some things I have heard him do before in other film music, but here he has reached a new plateau of richness and acuity in his composition that makes the songs instantly unforgettable. It’s a great score that is both lyrical and not, poetic and haunting yet oddly ambivalent about itself. Tonally, it’s a perfect fit with the film.
I think time will see Only God Forgives as a minor film from Refn. It certainly lacks the emotional impact that Drive had, though in many ways it’s a more assured effort and contains more viscerally beautiful imagery. Thematically it is also a bit more up front about itself, almost to the point of being bludgeoningly obvious, though as an abstraction of reality, I don’t mind that as much as others likely will. The film’s dedication to famed filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain, El Topo) makes little sense at first, if for no other reason than thematically Only God Forgives is so different from Jodorowsky’s body of work. But on the level of pure imagery and the inspiration to put everything out there so bluntly but nonetheless make it all so eye-popping, ostentatious, and elegant, it makes perfect sense.
4 out of 5 stars.