Nicolas Winding Refn set the critics and the internet alight in 2011 with the Ryan Gosling led Drive. His artsy take on a crime film stood out against the rest of that year's major releases with it's incredibly slow and deliberate pace. It also stood out somewhat as Refn's most "mainstream" production, if not by much. Drive was slick artistic and reasonably accessible while keeping a tight hold of that arthouse feel. A hell of a lot of people were expecting Drive 2.0. Only God Forgives is not that.
Only God Forgives goes a bit further from the beaten track and is full on arthouse with symbolism and slow-burn intensity coming out the back end. It created a mixed reaction with critics, to put it lightly. During its trip to the world famous Cannes Film Festival it was walked out on and booed in some screenings and came out of other with top critics awarding it perfect scores. The graphic violence and cryptic approach to storytelling understandably splits reactions pretty much down the middle.
From the get-go, OGF sets out its stall a creeping and eerie dynamic. No punches are pulled as we're introduced to Ryan Gosling's Julian and his brother Billy, who are American-born gangsters working the streets of Bangkok fronting as a Muay Thai boxing club. Billy manages to befall a deserving but gruesome fate which brings the brothers' mother as well as a vengeful police lieutenant out of the woodwork and sets them all on a journey of revenge and retribution exploring the nature of sin and forgiveness.
If you're big on hard hitting and compelling dialogue, this film is not the one for you. In a trademark style, Refn's main character here barely speaks (in his 2009 picture Valhalla Rising, the main character doesn't speak at all). Gosling apparently racks up a total of 17 lines in the entirety of OGF. Most of the feeling in the film comes from the physical acting and the beautiful, beautiful use of lighting and set dressing. Not everyone can agree on whether the rest of the film was impressive, but I'd challenge anyone to come up with a good argument for how this films doesn't look good. Deep blacks, broken by soft hues of gold and deep reds, are interspersed with expertly placed neons that lend the entire production the feel of a dreamy acid trip in the seedy backstreets of Thailand.
Major criticisms come in the form of the characters. Many have said they don't feel like people and just seem to represent "ideas" instead. And that's kind of exactly what makes the film a great watch. The three main characters, Julian, his mother and the lieutenant, are all pretty inhuman monsters to varying degrees. The lieutenant is a sin eater: he carries out harsh and brutal punishments on those who deserve it. This allows him to also be the agent of forgiveness. It might just be because I've been watching a lot of Breaking Bad, but just because someone is the main character doesn't mean they're the good guy, and just because the lieutenant is working against Gosling doesn't mean he's the bad guy.
Then you have Gosling. Julian is just completely messed up. There is a very overt Oedipal relationship between him and his mother, and it's clear it's just left him confused and belittled his entire life. This confusion and and inability to see the world in the simple black-and-white of the rest of the cast is why he's our main character.
I came because it was a Gosling (and Refn) movie, but I stayed because of Kristin Scott Thomas' Crystal. I haven't seen her in anything before, and truth be told I only knew she existed because of Jeremy Clarkson's obsession with her on Top Gear, but god damn does she steal the show here. It's a departure from her usual high-class and refined roles. She's a mafia take on Lady Macbeth, and it's brilliant.
Crystal is scary. Not in that "She's clearly a crazy psychopath" kind of way either. There's no sense that's she's crazy or just missing the empathy part of her brain, she's just plain cold and ruthless. There's no veneer, only straight up contempt, disgust and hate and Scott Thomas does it perfectly.
Only God Forgives is not going to make it on many "Best Films" list, but where it does it'll be pretty high up. I'm a sucker for good looking films and this is one of the best visual stories I've seen in a while. It's not Drive 2 by a long shot. It's a trippy, violent and unsettling film. One that I'm very pleased with.