“No matter what happens, keep your eyes closed”
I’ve never seen a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but it doesn’t take a long glimpse into the auteur’s internet biographies to understand why Nicolas Winding Refn dedicated his Only God Forgives to the legend. Descriptions are riddled with labels such as “avant-garde”, “violently surreal”, “mystical”, and “religiously provocative”—terms also very clearly formed while watching this newest, meditative jaunt through the stoic minds of morally tortured killers from the critically acclaimed director of Drive. More akin to his ethereal visual poem Valhalla Rising, however, this tale of a displaced, drug-running American in Thailand can’t help but come across as some grand metaphor. Its tonally ruthless simplicity juxtaposed against a starkly beautiful mise-en-scène entrances as it confuses, begging the question of whether there is enough intrigue to bother digging for answers.
Personally, I’m not quite sure there is. Perhaps it was the time period, aesthetics of its environment, or my willingness to believe Vikings were savage, but Valhalla Rising‘s dark fairy tale of vengeance took much less time to buy into. The cold sterility of Only God Forgives simply can’t hide its artifice as well as Refn’s supernatural Norse tale’s bleak gray skies and barren branches. From the over-saturated filters of blue, red, or green to the static karaoke sessions post eviscerations, it almost seems as though the filmmaker is gleefully toying with us. This Bangkok is warped by a palpable evil the likes of which provides lifeblood to places like David Lynch‘s Black Lodge, whose inhabitants throw curtly biting words that slice their target open or precisely measured physical attacks with a monastic reverence and exacting effect.
This was to be Refn’s follow-up to Valhalla—an even more mesmerizingly obtuse piece than the last. It was star Ryan Gosling who talked him into making Drive first, a maneuver that rewarded him with accolades and fanboy love while also perhaps putting him into the mainstream consciousness too soon for something like this ultraviolent eye-for-an-eye parable to find acceptance. So many hoped to find another slow-moving actioner with a sleekly cool sheen, unprepared for the snail’s crawl in virtual silence he’d supply. Because despite Gosling’s Julian and Vithaya Pansringarm‘s unforgettably frightening Chang (the “Angel of Vengeance”) engaging in a war for justice, the few seconds of actual fisticuffs becomes overshadowed by the internal machinations occurring behind their equally blank expressions that quiver ever so slightly in an anger-tempered determination.
In all honesty, Julian’s quest for revenge on the man who let his brother Billy (Tom Burke) die at the hands of someone with proper cause would never have lasted 90-minutes had it been made in the Hollywood system. Instead of blind rage swiftly controlling his actions, a levelheaded code of honor was adopted instead. More details are introduced to flesh out his character—or convolute things into an even stranger string of eccentricities depending on the viewer’s enjoyment level—as the journey extends into awkward dinners and sexually charged exchanges between mother and son. The word acidic comes to mind as Julian’s paid companion Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) meets his cunning bitch of a mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a woman whose idea of grieving a son is to emasculate her other one remorselessly.
Between severed arms, raped sixteen year olds, and the complete annihilation of a heavily populated diner, the title quickly finds itself fully on the nose. This is a cruel world populated by despicable people wherein justice gets served by those willing to seek it with the same level of violence as their prey. But even then God becomes mere fallacy as the events unfolding do their best to prove his absence. It’s in this Godless world that forgiveness is rendered impossible—or at the very least an act of charity served through death. And with the multiple instances of Julian getting caught in a nightmarish fantasy wherein he willingly pays for his sins, one must wonder whether this whole endeavor is the manifestation of a tortured soul no longer able to live with what he’s done.
The scenes get slower as Larry Smith‘s camera pushes into each frame like he’s wading through molasses to capture his main focal point, centered and waiting for its close-up. Cliff Martinez‘s score pulses and pounds in such a deafening manner that Refn sometimes lets it drown out the words being spoken so whatever vicious assault happening can do so in an unrelentingly animalistic way. And just as the screen bathes in its heavy colors, enhancing the carefully placed shadows and highlights of each meticulously orchestrated composition, we catch the vulnerability behind Gosling’s soft eyes, the feral tenacity of Scott Thomas’ cutthroat matriarch, and the calmly assured deeds of Pansringarm’s prophet doing the biding of a God no longer interested in absolving mankind’s cruelty. The silence is deafening, the murders ritualistic.
But while all these ideas are spilling forth hours after viewing its largely subtitled feast of blood, I can’t shake the feeling its only to allow myself to raise my grade without the guilt of over-admiring its stunning aesthetic. The acting is superb—Scott Thomas and Pansringarm are forces to reckon with while Gosling infuses a welcome humanity into his pent-up frustrations—and the audacity of Refn admirable if not at times a bit misguided. You want to believe there’s deeper meaning, but the extremely choreographed movements make it hard to see anything besides an extremely well produced avant-garde picture with more ideas than solutions to share them. Every cent of the budget is onscreen and there are scenes you won’t easily shake, but while I’d definitely recommend it be seen, I’m undecided whether there’s enough for a second glimpse.
 Ryan Gosling stars as Julien in RADiUS-TWC’s Only God Forgives (2013)
 Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Jenna in RADiUS-TWC’s Only God Forgives (2013)
 Vithaya Pansringarm stars as Chang in RADiUS-TWC’s Only God Forgives (2013)