Now Judge Daryl Loomis is hungry for ribs.
Time to meet the devil.
Critics almost universally hated it, was soundly booed at Cannes, and was despised by many in the general public. But that doesn't make Only God Forgives a bad movie; quite the opposite, in fact. The second collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) and star Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) does much of the same thing that their first did: subvert expectations. I don't feel about Only God Forgives in any way close to my passionate love of Drive, but Refn has created a film of incredible beauty and savagery the likes of which has rarely been seen.
Facts of the Case
Brothers Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke, Donkey Punch) run a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok as a front for their drug ring, which is doing just fine until Billy murders an underage prostitute. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, Mindfulness and Murder) is brought out of retirement to investigate, finds the victim's father, and allows him to beat Billy to death. It would be a done deal, but Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas, In the House), arrives from Miami to claim her son's body and take care of some drug business of her own, only to find out that her son's killer is not yet dead. When she then puts a hit out on him, Chang begins a quest to find her, exacting his own brand of vengeance on anyone who gets in his way.
First things first: if you come into Only God Forgives expecting a movie anywhere close to Drive, you'll walk away sorely disappointed. The two movies couldn't be farther apart in content and style. The only real similarity is Gosling's stoic, near silent performance, but the two characters are utterly different. The Driver is quiet, but is an almost-hero who will take action for the people he cares about, even if he won't admit to caring. Julian, on the other hand, is a man of near total inaction, having been so cuckolded by his mother that he can only act upon affronts to her. Julian almost isn't even a character (a fact that really rubbed viewers the wrong way); he's more of a placeholder for the events surrounding him.
Speaking of Julian's mother, Kristen Scott Thomas is nearly unrecognizable as the awful, evil Crystal. The physical embodiment of a whole slew of words I'm not allowed to write on this site, she made herself into something closer to Real Housewives of Bangkok than anything I recognize as the actress. It's a full transformation that makes her into the supreme villainess of the movie and one side of the actual conflict in the film.
The other side of the conflict is Chang. He's only referred to as that in the credits and, really, is a nameless angel of vengeance with a mysterious past and a savage streak that is unbelievable to watch. His sword work and Muay Thai skills are precise and realistic, and the level of cold-blooded violence he delivers is both disgusting and extremely compelling. Every action he takes (aside from his first love, karaoke) is based around revenge, though, which begs a question. Can a sadist also be a hero, or is Only God Forgives a story with only villains converging on one another? I figure that comes down to individual opinion, but the answer is far less important to me than how it plays out.
Through this simple, straight-forward anti-revenge plot, Refn delivers an orgy of violence and cinematic beauty that is sometimes tough to deal with, but always amazing to watch. People might criticize the movie's utter lack of character development and they'd be right, but I defy anybody to deny how intensely gorgeous it is. Maybe that's not enough for some people, and that's totally fine, but when a movie is this impeccably shot, it's impossible for me to dismiss it.
Shot on location in the brothels and karaoke bars of Bangkok, the cinematography by Larry Smith (Bronson) is like a painting per frame, with gorgeous perspective shots, brilliantly framed interiors, and a color palette filled with heavily saturated reds and blues contrasting against each other within the same shot. That stylistic touch recalls the incredible photography of Suspiria (another beautiful, but desperately underwritten film) to great effect, giving the same kind of unnerving feeling here that was so successful there.
And really, Only God Forgives has many shades of horror in it. From the grotesque, uncomfortably brutal violence to the isolated motifs of hands and the ceremonial chopping of those hands, it is much closer to atmospheric horror than to the action film that one might expect from Refn's past work and the film's description.
For my taste, though, what really drives the movie home is the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (Traffic). In the film, there are very long dialog free scenes and his music, a mixture of electronics and native instruments, often tells more of the story than the dialog does. It's a beautiful piece of work that is different from anything else he's done in his career and, together with the photography, makes the kind of sight and sound experiences I long to see.
Both of these aspects are given very fair treatment on Anchor Bay's DVD release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer isn't the reference quality image that one might find on the Blu-ray, but the colors are very strong, black levels are nice and deep, and the flesh tones look perfectly natural. The Dolby surround mix is quite strong, as well, with good separation through the channels, clear dialog, and a very nice platform for the score. Overall, it's about as good as one can expect these days from a standard definition release, so I'm happy.
Extras are good, as well. The slate opens with a strong audio commentary with Refn, which is really more of a long-form interview that is relevant to the scenes at hand. Refn is always good about explaining what he's going for in his movies and this commentary shows that perfectly well. That continues with a pair of interviews done in Refn's Bangkok hotel room during filming, which delivers more of the same. An interview with Cliff Martinez gives a detailed look at what he was going for in the soundtrack and is very much worth a listen. Finally, about an hour's worth of behind the scenes featurettes shows the crew blocking out scenes, rehearsing, etc. which, for anybody interested in film production itself, make for a valuable viewing experience. Overall, a good disc.
You might say that Only God Forgives is derailed by shallow characters and inconstant, barely existent plotting and I would say that you're right. I'll also say that I don't care all that much because it's a brilliant, beautiful fever dream filled with gorgeous imagery and brutal violence. For my money, that's more than enough to recommend the film.
Many may disagree, but this film is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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