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The easiest thing to say about Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, Only God Forgives, is that it’s an experience. Loaded with style, that oozes off the screen, Refn’s latest film is most certainly a polarizing one, a film that will resonate with anyone that comes in contact with it, in both good and bad ways. The film stars Ryan Gosling, as Julian, the son of Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a female mob boss that runs an operation out of Bangkok, Thailand. Julian runs a muay thai boxing gym as a front, in order to keep his mother’s drug business as clean as possible. After a major incident that involves his brother, he receives the attention of a retired cop by the name of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who still enforces the law, along with the local authorities. While this set up would seem extremely straight forward, Refn manages to approach the film and make it juvenile, beautiful, visceral and savage, all at the same time.
Only God Forgives is the equivalent of cinematic masturbation by Refn and I mean that in both a good and bad way. Just about every single frame, spoken word and sense of what’s taking place on the screen has the feel of his hand, beating you in the face, for your attention and dedication. While it makes sense by having things like deep red colors, that both fixate on the violence and the sexuality in Only God Forgives, it truly feels like Refn is showcasing the mindset of teenager. All of the film’s elements are working in tandem, in order to present something that is cool, all for the sake of being cool. Yet, while I can argue about all of these things, this might be the very point that Only God Forgives, exists. Refn is trying to make something uniquely his and doesn’t really care what anyone thinks.
While Gosling is the lead in the film and somewhat reprises his silent, but deadly role from Drive, the true star of the film is Vithaya Pansringarm. His portrayal of Chang is nothing short of incredible and Only God Forgives should be seen just for his performance alone. His presence in a scene makes him feel like a god, with him being judge, jury and executioner. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers an awkward performance, unlike anything we’ve ever seen her in. The things that she utters as Crystal is sure to make anyone blush and truly breathes life into the tyrannical, drug czar mother.
While Only God Forgives presents a singular vision that belongs solely to Refn, there are three people responsible for executing and contributing to this 90 minute sensory overload. Cinematographer Larry Smith creates some of the best looking work he’s done since Bronson. From the camera movements, to the neon tinged palate that hangs over about every frame, Smith creates a wonderful looking film, that is both slick and gritty. Production Designer Beth Mickle works miracles and gives the film an exotic flair and an intense presentation, that makes every scene and sequence unforgettable. Cliff Martinez did a wonderful job on the Drive score, but his work on Only God Forgives is breathtaking. From the tribal infused bells and percussion, to the overloaded synth that is showcased during a bad ass fight sequence, Martinez outdoes his previous work in a multitude of ways.
When I walked out of the theatre the other night for Only God Forgives, there were both loud cheers and boo’s coming from the audience. The mixture of both of these reactions are exactly how I felt about the film. On the one hand, its a masterpiece, driven by the presentation of a filmmaker that knows what he wants. On the other, Only God Forgives is a film that will be loathed by many and maybe, deservedly so. The one thing that I can’t deny is that this film shall most certainly be remembered and upheld as a visceral work of a filmmaker, who shall do anything in their power to provoke and present something unlike any other.