Film Reviews

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

By • Aug 2nd, 2013 •

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Film may serve as a personal journey for the filmmaker. Film is not always meant to satisfy the masses. For those that believe Jennifer Aniston is a great actress, Adam Sandler and Kevin James are connoisseurs of comedy, and the e’ i’ll massimo of story is built upon cars driven by a guy named Diesel, you needn’t see ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Those guilty of such heretic beliefs will find this film bromidic.

Nicolas Winding Refn wrote and directed the film that, once again, pairs him with Ryan Gosling after DRIVEN. This film takes us to Bangkok where Julian (Gosling) runs a Muay Thai gym as a front for his family’s drug business. Once his malicious brother rapes and kills a teenaged Thai prostitute, the battle to avenge escalates to a game of carnage chess culminating with a city bedaubed in coagulated blood and lost limbs.

Enter Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) to purge Bangkok’s bestial underbelly. As a man of the law, as a devotee of Hammurabi’s Lex Talionis, (Law of Retaliation) “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” he is an unassuming not-so-tall man who brings forth righteousness with a sword. He is the Thai Charles Bronson. It is with clarity, discipline, and virtue that he maintains a stealth spiritual guidance and it is with mastery that he wields sharp weaponry and martial arts.

Chang’s introduction is in a room where a lump of bloodied flesh lay in waiting as the murderer sits illuminated by the outside light of night. The victim’s father is summoned to avenge his daughter’s death. With blood-stained hands, the mourning father is brought alongside a road to give testimony as to why he allowed his daughter to earn baht in such a vile demeaning manner. Chang, as authoritarian, swiftly administers justice on behalf of the dead girl by severing the man’s hand. He decrees that this will ensure a better father to his other daughters.

Julian forgives the father for the death of his brother. It is with this decision that his character is viewed as meek, jealous, and impotent by Crystal – a blonde American, a sort of femme fatale. Unrecognizable as Kristen Scott Thomas, this vulgar villainess is reminiscent of a Helmut Newton model. She is stylish, strong, and sexual, a la young Brigitte Nielson with the qualities of Danish actress Gwili Andre.

Crystal berates her son Julian during a dinner time tirade that eludes to her sexual longings for her deceased son. It is at this sitting that Julian’s girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) is also verbally attacked. From this, we can take away fragments of Julian’s life to understand some of the visuals presented in the film. There are metaphors in the film. There are clues. It shows but refuses to tell. Julian surrounds himself with men in a gym, he is obedient to a scornful mother, he berates his submissive girlfriend, he watches her from a chair in a bedroom without any physical intimacy. Perhaps Julian is a cerebral narcissist.

Crystal touts ex-pat miscreants to avenge her son’s death. A sprinkling of drugs and money entices the criminal element. She decries his death and justifies that her first born, a rapist murderer, must have had his reasons. She will pit her obedient son Julian, a useless pawn, against the forces fighting her. Ipso facto, to live by the sword is to die by the sword.

It is an injustice not to mention the wonderful craftsmanship of cinematographer Larry Smith. The first time in quite awhile that a film has delivered such tonal qualities evoking mood. The images are akin to a painter’s palette. Revelations in slashes of light. Shots perfectly framed. True depth.
A differentiation between foreground and background.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES brings to mind Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento. Refn’s works are centered around personal strife, peril, and self-realization. The director from Denmark should not have comparisons made between he and Lars Von Trier. Trier is a trite filmmaker and screenwriter.

Shot in Thailand, a place of promise for filmmaking, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is one of 2013’s best films. Its rhythm is at a pace that is not for most movie goers. It’s not shocking to find that after lifelong spoon-feeding of Hollywood fluff, something with filmic value should be shoved aside.

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