The writers and film lovers here at Full Circle Cinema know that opinions on films are divisive and can get pretty argumentative, but to encourage friendly and lively debate we have Full Circle Showdown; an in-depth discussion and collaborative review from two writers who have different opinions and ways of seeing films. With controversial filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn debuting his Amazon series Too Old To Die Young on Friday, June 14th, it felt like the proper time to take a look at one of Refn’s films. In true Showdown spirit, we selected the most polarizing film of his entire catalogue: 2013’s Only God Forgives.
How did our two writers respond to Refn’s surreal journey into the streets of Bangkok? Find out after the jump!
Review #1: James Preston Poole (Lead Critic)
Few recent films have captured the fervor of film fanatics quite like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Even fewer have inspired the level of debate of intense debate of his writing/directing follow-up, Only God Forgives. Some call it self-indulgent, ultra-violent trash; others call it a something of a minor masterpiece. After revisiting the film on a rainy Sunday evening- not having touched it for years- I stand firmly in the latter camp.
The film starts with a grisly scene. After discovering the murder of a 16-year-old sex worker in Bangkok, Thailand, the mysterious Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the girl’s father to take vengeance on the perpetrator, deranged ex-pat Billy Thompson (Tom Burke). When he discovers the news, Billy’s brother, withdrawn fight club owner/drug runner Julian (Ryan Gosling), is unsure how to process. That is, until his mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok demanding that he kills whoever is responsible, kicking off an increasingly violent, abstract series of events.
Only God Forgives is fundamentally a film about Biblical judgment. It actualizes this theme through unforgettable visuals and audio. The streets of Bangkok are a beautifully dingy sight- a hotbed of every conceivable criminal enterprise. Many may take issue with the level of violence that occurs within Refn’s Bangkok, but it all serves the purpose of creating a hellish environment where both our protagonist and the common folk feel trapped. It never fetishizes the depravity of this world, only emphasizing it for a horrified reaction.
Cliff Martinez’s score builds an uneasy atmosphere of drums and synthesizers to signal the coming fate of our lead characters, while the sparsest of heavenly blues clash with overbearing reds in cinematographer Larry Smith’s visual palette.
The reds mostly follows Julian. Hell, they engulf him, representing the sin he can’t seem to escape. Despite having only 17 lines, Gosling’s Julian makes for a compelling protagonist. His stoicism can’t portray the deep hurt beneath his eyes. He’s a traumatized man who seems to want to be a good guy. Touches like his strange yet tender relationship with prostitute Mai (Rhatha Phongam) make Julian a mystery you desperately want to unravel.
What becomes clear over the course of the film is that Julian is a deeply broken man. Refn centers the film’s main conflict over the two authority figures wrestling for his soul. The first is his mother, who Kristen Scott Thomas plays as a fundamentally evil woman who controls her son in every way she can. There’s an uncomfortable Oedipal layer to Crystal and Julian’s relationship, one that provides even further insight into Julian’s fragile state of mind. Thomas is nasty in all the right ways, giving a performance to rival Piper Laurie’s own domineering mother in Carrie. She encourages Julian’s worst impulses- the literal devil on his shoulder.
For every Devil there must be a God, and according to Refn, the character of Lieutenant Chang is supposed to be the literal man Himself. Even without that information, the conviction in the performance by Vithaya Pansringarm, as well as him materializing a sword from seemingly nowhere, says it all. This is a decisive, Old Testament-esque God who walks around making, well, judgment on those who cross his path. Bathed in blue, he’s a truly ethereal figure whose very presence puts both the audience and Julian on edge, as we both know that that judgment may very well be coming for him.
Everything comes to a head in a fight scene between Julian and the Lieutenant. In a gorgeously shot subversion of what we typically expect a fight scene to be, the film’s theme is consolidated irrevocably. After that, everything comes crumbling down for most of the characters, leading to a pile of ash that’s hard to look away from.
Nicolas Winding Refn has made a beautiful film surrounding ugliness. It is by its nature very theme-driven over plot and much is it is extremely off-putting. But what we now have is a confident and precise vision that conveys everything it set out to do. Only God Forgives continues to inspire debate even 6 years after its release and that has to say something.
Review #2: Audrey Griffin (Features Writer)
I’ll admit I didn’t have the best first viewing experience of Only God Forgives. I watched it in a random dorm, with a stranger drinking vodka straight from the bottle in the corner. The lights in the film gave me a headache. I kept a film journal at the time, and it was the only movie to receive one star.
A few years have gone by, and I decided to give it a second chance for this article. I’ve seen Drive and Pusher since then, and thoroughly enjoyed them. I would call myself a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn. Perhaps Only God Forgives just wasn’t the best introduction.
I stand by my original one-star review.
For me, the question the film brought up was style versus substance. Refn’s work is known for two things: his use of highly stylized lighting and coloring, and his depiction of the criminal underworld. In Only God Forgives, he pitches head-first into an exploration of his style, leaving all elements of story and characterization behind. What made Drive and Pusher interesting were the protagonists and how deeply their conflicts affected them, pushing their morality further and further. However, Only God Forgives allocates more of its energy to the lighting setups than it does exploring morality.
It’s not a bad movie per se, there just isn’t a lot there. A majority of the film is characters staring, expressions unchanging, amid an intricately designed set and lighting. It’s visually compelling, but not much else; the kind of movie where each frame is breathtaking, but there isn’t any emotional depth to push it into the realm of art. It feels like just another student film made by a male director who thinks he has something important to say just because he uses violence to say it.
Speaking of, what little female characters there are in this film are treated predictably poorly. The only two women with substantial speaking lines are Mai, Julian’s girlfriend who is also a sex worker, and Crystal, Julian’s mother. This feeds into the notion that there are only two types of women: mothers and whores that exist only through their relation to other men.
Refn made this film purely for his own artistic desires, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it’s hard to enjoy a movie that so aggressively doesn’t care about the audience. The story moves at a snail’s pace. None of the characters are noteworthy. Good punishes evil, justice prevails, credits roll. Yes, it’s beautifully shot, but what good is beauty when it feels so hollow? There could be deeper meanings, hidden lore, but I’m focusing on what was actually shown on screen—and there wasn’t much.
I don’t have a lot to say about this movie purely because there isn’t a lot there. In fact, I watched the movie the same way the characters reacted to everything that happened to them; with an unchanging, blank face.
Well, this may be our most polarized Showdown yet! While both writers see the value in the film’s visuals, they disagree heavily when it comes to the film’s substance. Looks like the debate over Only God Forgives rages on!
What do you think of Only God Forgives and its filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn? Are you excited for Too Old To Die Young? Let us know in the comments below!