Only God Forgives must be seen as an experiment and not as a movie. It doesn’t function like a movie, nor does it have characters like movies do. It has people, yes, but they are not sentient beings. They are machines, moving to facilitate the progress of the narrative and to dish out immense violence from time to time. They do not speak; they recite. They do not walk; they move. They inhabit a world that is stylized, and through this stylization, they become stylized themselves. Only God Forgives is an experiment of the human world.
Now not all experiments work — and I’m still trying to figure out if this one does — but director Nicolas Refn clearly has fun conducting his. After Drive, which is a poignant piece of cinema, he tightens up his strings and focuses his style on vibrant colour contrasts, ultra-violence, and meticulously choreographed movements that resemble a play more than a movie. Here, his characters move with the apprehension of slasher flick teens, and his villain, the ominous Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), glides across the floor as if he’s the angel of death (in many ways, he is). To me, though, he seems more like the Terminator; rigid, focused, ruthless, and unstoppable. He pulls out a short sword from his back every time he moves in for the kill, and his martial arts skills are unmatched. He doesn’t hesitate to kill and he sings Karaoke as a form of penance. He is twisted, but he’s loving towards his daughter. He knows no pain, and seeks no forgiveness. When asked to fight, he pauses for a long while before simply turning his head and nodding.
Yet we do not feel anything for him, nor do we feel anything for the rest of the cast. Like I said before, they aren’t human. They’re machines. They hardly talk, but when they do, they speak as if divine power has flowed through them. They don’t hold normal conversation and they don’t respond to events the way we’re used to. They are puppets, programmed to say certain things and perform certain actions. Nothing more.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American runaway who has taken shelter in Bangkok and now runs a muay thai boxing club that deals drugs behind the curtains. After his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is killed for killing a 16 year old prostitute, he seeks to exact vengeance. But when he discovers that his brother’s killer is the dead prostitute’s father, he pities him and lets him live, much to the disappointment of his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Crystal orders Julian to carry out the vengeance, and when he refuses, she goes to others for help. All this leads to a cat and mouse chase that involves Julian, Crystal, and Chang, with tonnes of blood and body parts flying around in the process. But everything happens slowly. Even the violence is slow. When Chang runs, it looks like rollerblades have been attached to his feet. When Julian walks, it takes him ages to cross the room. When he is tied to a chair in his room to watch a prostitute pleasure herself in front of him, he seems to be enduring a ritual. Slow, methodical, exact. Refn seems to enjoy the fact that he makes us wait for something to happen, and that if we want it to happen badly enough, we will wait willingly.
But the beauty of Only God Forgives lies in the wait, not in the action or the dialogue. As we inch our way towards the next fight scene, cinematographer Larry Smith floods our eyes with an array of bright colours — usually reds and blues — that contrast and complement each other. He creates shadows and lines, and patterns, and textures, all through lighting and careful placement. Characters sit in the dark with their eyes in the light. They are shielded by veils and blinds and shiny things that dangle from the ceiling. He directs our attention to the details that are between the light, not in it. The result is a visual feast, an aesthetically beautiful movie that pumps forward — albeit very slowly — to a glorious soundtrack of ambient music and drony excellence. The combination is so powerful that narrative and character are pushed to the background. And rightly so, because narrative and character have no place in this Bangkok that Refn has created. It is like an experiment, an experiment to see if a movie can survive on its aesthetics, and the results of this experiment are for us to decide.
Best Moment | Chang’s fight with Julian. Intense, one-sided, and cool. I half expected the result to be different, but hey, I’m all for surprises.
Worst Moment | The “I want to go back into your womb” moment.