Only God Forgives | Film Review

[title size=”1 to 6″ style=”options: default, sidebar”]Letter Grade: A+[/title]

Review by Brent Scott Maze | Seeds Entertainment

“The idea of a male fist is obviously a combination of sex and violence, but when you open it, it is about submission. I thought that, that movement was a movie. That was one idea that began the whole idea of making this film,” Writer, director, and producer Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Valhalla Rising) stated during an interview with the Film Society Lincoln Center. This journey from the fist to the open hand is what defines the artistic masterpiece that is Only God Forgives.

The film centers on an American drug pushing gangster Julian, played by Ryan Gosling (Drive; The Notebook).

On the surface, it is a story of revenge: Julian’s brother, Billy, is murdered by the father of a young girl that he raped and killed. Kristin Scott Thomas (Mission Impossible, Gosford Park) plays their mother, Crystal. She comes to Julian wanting revenge for the death of her favorite son.

In the mean time, Chang, the chief of police, is cracking down on underground fight clubs and drug pushers. He is also connected to the death of Billy. Chang believes he is God, or has that amount of power, and Julian is looking for a religion, or simply something to guide his way. Throughout the events of the film, he indirectly becomes Julian’s gateway to confrontation with his mother and their dark past.

During the writing and creation of the film, Refn and his wife were going through a tough pregnancy with their second child; they were constantly living in fear and the unknown. Refn stated in his interview with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, “God, if you are really putting me through all this pain, I really want to fight you.” This concept shines through in the story arc shared by Julian and Chang.

Refn’s process of writing films is actually very interesting and very different than most writers’. He compares his approach to pornography. Refn states, “I come up with ideas of what I would like to see. And then when I have ‘x’ amount of ideas on index cards, I put them down and construct a sort of structure. And then a story reveals itself within it.” This shows how truly visual of a storyteller Refn is.

The lack of dialogue, pretentious and annoying random images, and lack of plot are the complaints of most critics and un-informed, self-proclaimed, internet movie experts.

First, the lack of dialogue is an artistic choice. At first, Refn explains that there was a decent amount of dialogue, but they ended up cutting a good majority of it due to a few reasons. Julian and his family were originally going to be British, but due to a change in the lead from Luke Evans (The Raven, Immortals) to Gosling, they decided on American main characters. That in itself changed the way many of the characters’ dialogue would be represented.

Secondly, Refn was going to have most of the Thai cast speak English, but certain translations wouldn’t come across the same way in the opposite language, and vice versa. Also, Refn tells his stories with more images than words–film is a visual medium is it not? He refuses to spoon feed audiences information through obvious dialogue in respect of their intelligence.

If one decides to watch Only God Forgives and is too apathetic and lazy, or simply does not have the mental capacity to interpret what they are seeing on screen, they will not understand the film whatsoever. As for the so called “pretentious and annoying random images,” they are juxtapositions of sub-textual images. They are far from random. Refn uses juxtaposition as a device to send the audience deeper into the minds, true intentions, and emotions of the characters without spelling it out in a conversation. As stated earlier, the plot of Only God Forgives is one based on images and character, not plot.

No matter how much these critics hate Refn’s artistic style of storytelling, none of them neglected to mention how breath-taking and beautifully photographed the film is. With an opening sequence that is littered with textural low key lighting, beautiful patterns, and a heavily saturated palette of reds and yellows, Only God Forgives draws in the audience immediately. Refn’s collaboration with cinematographer, Larry Smith (Bronson, Eyes Wide Shut), results in a world of neon magical-realism.

A good majority of the film takes place at night, a time where Refn states, “When all of the kind of westernized ‘Disneyland’ went away, Bangkok at night became very Thai; it became very magical and supernatural, and a very odd place to be. I felt this could be a great arena for a film.” Not a single set was built; every location in the film is a real place. The city of Bangkok is filled with neon signs on every street, basking the scenes in brilliant green, red, purple, and yellow soft light; Refn and Smith used this to their advantage in almost every shot.

Much like film Noir, there are many hard shadows motivated by the harsh light sources scattered through the streets. Not only are the exteriors locations in the streets beautifully lit, the interiors contain some of the best artificial lighting to date. The dojo in which Julian works, is bathed in red lights that spreads gradients across the walls and is accented by an enormous back lit dragon shrine.

In Only God Forgives, unlike many recent Hollywood films, practical lighting is heavily utilized: in most shots there are visible sources of light such as neon signs on buildings, lamps, China lanterns, hot tub lights, and rope lights in strip clubs. One scene is even light solely by the unseen headlights of a car. These are all creative, artistic ways to light scenes in a motivated, realistic way. One of the most prevalent lighting techniques throughout all of Refn’s films, contrasting cool and warm color temperatures in the same frame, still remains in Only God Forgives. Refn and Smith are at the top of the league in lighting.

Not only is the lighting absolutely fantastic, but the camera work is equally to credit for the overall aesthetic of the film.

Interestingly enough, the film consists mostly of still shots. However, each frame is filled with so much texture, information, and intriguing visuals, that audiences never become bored. Refn, being a true, practicing “Auteur,” never neglects mise-en-scene.

In addition to the still shots, there is a lot of slow tracking, sometimes at rates so slow that it’s hard to even notice. This creates tension and suspense without the over-dramatics of Hollywood. Refn sets up shots in every scene that allow for extremely deep focus. At certain points in the film, the entire lengths of building interiors are viewable from a single still shot. The only camera movements are slow and fluid.

Handheld doesn’t exist in Only God Forgives like it did in Refn’s earlier works such as the Pusher Trilogy. The film was not shot in anamorphic (top and bottom black bars with light streaking bokeh) like most new films.  Shooting in anamorphic is a cheap and easy way of getting that polished “cinematic look,” but Refn gets the look in a much more impressive, artistic way that creates a more impactful overall aesthetic. Only God Forgives is a film that radiates ethereality, putting the audience in a trance. It is beautiful.

After filming Bronson, Refn found out that it costs roughly six million Euros to make a French film. He went to Wild Bunch Film Company and pitched that he would give them two films for six million Euros. To finalize his deal for the two films, he was given that night and next day to write two synopsis; these two pitches that he quickly formulated eventually evolved into Drive and Only God Forgives. When asked about the pitch, Refn states, “I said, ‘I’ll do a fight movie, that’s a western, in Bangkok.’ And they said ‘Okay.'”

Only God Forgives was actually going to be the first of the two films to be made. However, Luke Evans, who was originally the lead, backed out to be in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Refn then had to put the film on the back burner, and shoot Drive.  After Gosling gave an absolutely stellar, monumental performance and Refn won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival 2011, the choice for the lead in Only God Forgives was more than obvious.

These two men are the best pair since Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese. Throughout the filming and aftermath of Drive, Refn and Gosling became close friends. Their friendship most definitely helped tremendously in the creation of Only God Forgives, and will continue to help with their future film endeavors.

Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas’s performances are undeniably world class. Gosling uses facial expressions and body language to convey more feeling, emotion, and character than most actors can do with a hundred lines of dialogue. This is more than a perfect match for Refn’s visually-based style of storytelling.

Gosling is the epitome of quality film acting. Unlike many actors today, he would have survived and been a star in the silent era of film. Kirstin Scott Thomas’s performance is literally a force of god; or in this case, the devil. The pure evil and inhumanity that she is able to demonstrate through her character is more than terrifying–she never touches a hair on anyone’s head in a harmful way. The wrath comes from her ability to get deep into her character and push as hard as she possibly can. Also, Vithaya Pansringarm (Ninja: The Shadow of a Tear, The Hangover Part II) portrays Chang in such a haunting way–his character moves and feels like a ghost. Along with these great actors, the rest of the cast worked extremely well to create an overall well acted film.

Only God Forgives has just recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray. It would be to the benefit of anyone who appreciates the art of filmmaking to purchase a copy as soon as possible. It is truly a modern day masterpiece. Many years from now, filmmakers will look back on it as an inspiration and as a classic. Contrary to the unfortunately inaccurate internet ratings, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a ten out of ten film. Someday, everyone will understand this beautiful masterpiece and hopefully they start right now.