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Only God Forgives - Film Review

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by Aaron McDonald (subscribe)
Love sharing my passion for cinema. Tastes tend toward mainstream with an occasional dabble in arthouse and classics. Follow me on Twitter @melbmovieguy.
Published April 2nd 2014
Only God Forgives
Only God Forgives

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives is a masterful cinematic study in menace. The wonderful feeling of tension and oppression is generated in a great degree by the masterful soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, with fantastic electronic elements; the atmospheric monochromatic lighting in primary colours by cinematographer Larry Smith; and the measured use of silence in the script (amazing how a lack of dialogue can tighten the screws).

Set in Bangkok, Only God Forgives is the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), an ex-pat American who runs a Thai-boxing gym with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), as a front for their drug dealing operations. The trajectory of their lives is changed (for the worse), when Billy beats an underage prostitute to death, which brings him to the attention of police inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who meets out his own brand of brutal justice with no regard for due process, and with seemingly no oversight from his superiors. He is given a long leash, investigating crime and dispensing punishment like a feudal lord, from backstreet slums to upmarket skyscrapers.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal
Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal

Enter the fray Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy's mother, who has travelled to Bangkok ostensibly to collect the body of her eldest son, but in reality, to find out who was responsible for his death, and exact revenge. Crystal, herself the head of a powerful criminal organisation, is a bleach blonde, foul-mouthed, oedipal figure, who keeps her sons (or at least, her remaining living son) firmly under thumb with her overbearing, sexually charged dominating nature. After witnessing Crystal's interactions with Julian and his prostitute girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), it is clear why the brothers are so misogynistic in their interactions with women.

Despite her best efforts, Crystal's desire for revenge against Chang falls short, and merely serves to bring his violent brand of justice bearing down on her and Julian. For his part, Julian floats through the film, physically present, although never truly connecting with the situations and people around him.

Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang
Justice, thy name is Chang

Chang is a fascinating character to watch; his motives are universally inscrutable, whether dispensing justice, or indulging his passion for karaoke singing (the juxtaposition of Chang's outbursts of controlled violence, with his calm, measured vocal performance, create some truly creepy, spine chilling moments), he moves and acts with the intensity of a force of nature. The only chink in Chang's nearly impervious armour is his young daughter; his care for her is the only time a glimmer of humanity is uncovered.

This potential weakness of Chang's leads to Julian enacting the only example of compassion in the film (albeit violently executed as it is). Despite this act of compassion, Chang still exacts his revenge on Julian for his part in the whole melodrama.

Despite the numerous strengths noted above, I found the underlying message too obscured in obtuse imagery to be discernible, and the meaning escaped me (although I am willing to admit that this was probably more due to a lack of perception in the viewer, than a lack of skill in the art of the film-maker).

However, having said this, Only God Forgives is still an engrossing example of masterful cinema.


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When: Out now
Where: DVD / Blu-ray
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