ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
MPAA Rating: (for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 7/19/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 19, 2013
With Only God Forgives, writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a silent film that just happens to have spoken dialogue, the sound of terrified screams of anguish, and the vocal stylings of a cold-blooded murderer. The dialogue here reveals nothing but plot and the broadest displays of characterization. One can imagine intertitles spread throughout Only God Forgives to clarify the former while the rest of the film plays out in complete silence (save for Cliff Martinez' dreamy, synthesizer-based score to highlight the atmosphere).
Even then, one could imagine the film playing without any dialogue of the spoken or even textual variety. The story is a simple revenge tale (The flip side of the title, obviously, is that no one else does—especially these characters). A character dies, and his family and professional acquaintances set out to kill the people responsible. There's nothing of significance to the story, but Winding Refn's command of visual language to convey the inner workings of characters and the external machinations of plot at least lends the film a stylistic weight.
It's not so much what the characters say as it is the impressions they make. We feel like we know them, but when we reach out to grasp some understanding of them, it's gone. There's a puzzle to these relationships, and there are pieces missing here and there that make it impossible to fully comprehend what makes them tick or why, given what we do know about them, they would even be the way they are in the first place. Far from frustrating, the mystery is as haunting as the film's vision of Bangkok—a place of dark, encircling streets and interiors that are soaked in bold hues of blue, yellow, and, naturally, red.
In this place, a man named Billy (Tom Burke) stalks the streets in search of young flesh. He eventually finds a 16-year-old girl sitting in front of a building, and soon after, we see the girl's body on the floor of a room—a pool of blood surrounding it. The police arrest him and bring him to Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a lieutenant who believes in a more direct form of judgment. He calls the girl's father to avenge his daughter's murder (We see the aftermath of a pulverized skull; Winding Refn does not shy away from the grotesque results of unbridled brutality). For the father's betrayal of his daughter, Chang cuts off the man's arm with a sword.
Billy's brother Julian (Ryan Gosling), who helps run a drug ring but really wants to manage kickboxers, seeks the man who killed his brother but decides against revenge after learning of Billy's sins. Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a brash and wrathful woman with no super-ego to control her worst thoughts from passing through her lips, decides to take control of plotting to redress the murder of her favored son.
Julian and Crystal's relationship is a sick one. It's rotted whatever once was of his psyche, and now he lives between the real world and dreams of horrors to come (Perhaps they're visions; it's not clear). He has a one-sided romance with a prostitute named Mai (Rhatha Phongam), whom we first meet when she ties Julian to a chair and proceeds to masturbate. We come to realize that this is not her decision. Julian receives some kind of satisfaction in being subjugated.
The reason is his mother, a domineering woman who believes that telling the son who routinely disappoints her that she decided against an abortion when she was pregnant with him is a statement of loving encouragement. If Julian's character is revealed most clearly in his silence and the odd fantasies in his mind, Crystal is a collection of her stiff posture, the stern look on her face, and the way she poses with her cigarette held out an odd angle, waiting for her son to light it—refusing to make even the slightest effort to do something for herself when her trusty servant is near.
While Crystal hires various henchmen to get revenge and Julian wanders around as indecisive as Hamlet but without the goal (He does challenge his family's nemesis to a fight, and it does not end well for him), Chang is learning of the plot against him and scheming his own retaliation against the people who would dare seek vengeance against him. Chang is the film's most fascinating creation.
He's a loving husband and father, which means little in terms of what he is capable of doing. What he's adept at, though, is grotesque torture performed with a calm hand and a cool temper (Pansringarm exhibits terrifying stillness in the role). He advises the women in a restaurant where he's found his target to close their eyes and orders the men to watch—lest they forget what happens to people who cross him—as he finds various sharp objects to stab into his victim. When he's finished with his day of vicious assaults and killings, he relaxes by singing at a karaoke bar.These are monsters in human skin. Even Julian, who seems harmless, is a man capable of violence if someone pushes the right button (He attacks a man for leering at Mai while she's dancing at a club, and Crystal, who might be cruel but isn't unreliable, suggests her son might have killed before, leading him to run to Bangkok in the first place). It's not pretty material, but Winding Refn's proficiency with narrative shorthand and eye for striking composition make Only God Forgives a troubling—and troublesome—but absorbing nightmare in which death, the film implies, is the only way to wake up from it.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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