Only God Forgives is the follow-up to Danish director Nicolas Winding’s 2011 critically acclaimed, Drive – a cultural phenomenon that made you want to buy a leather jacket and drive around at night listening to synthwave music. A stylish retro thriller with minor arthouse furnishings, Drive was a commercial success and mainstream breakthrough for Refn; now a director with the world at his feet, his next movie was highly anticipated by cinephiles and causal moviegoers alike; when it was announced he’d be teaming up with Ryan Gosling again excitement was in the air, with many hoping for Drive’s unofficial sequel. Instead, Refn opted to release a bloody arthouse picture as a tribute to Chilean surrealist master, Alejandro Jodorowsky. It was an artistic statement which divided audiences like black and white; at its Cannes premier it received both a standing ovation and booed hysteria from the polarized audience. Needless to say it’s a very ”love or hate”, if Drive was the cocaine, Only God Forgives is the acid – it might not be a good trip for some, but for others it might just take them on a journey of the conscience.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug smuggler who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for his criminal activities on behalf of his criminal family; after his brother murders a prostitute, which results in ruthless cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Given that his brother was murdered for raping and killing an innocent woman, Julian has no desire to take it any further. However, his domineering mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands retribution and her actions send Chan, also known as the Angel of Death, on a bloody mission of justice.
Only God Forbids is a strange movie; labelled pretentious and self-indulgent by its critics, they do have a point as it favours style over substance, but that doesn’t mean it contains none of the latter. It’s a film that’s waiting to be dissected and interpreted in different ways. The line between reality and symbolism is a blur; characters are merely caricatures in a hallucinogenic exploration of existentialism. Just like Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), it’s a Western that abandons a traditional narrative to explore themes that are difficult to decipher right away; at this moment in time I’m still not sure what to make of it all quite yet: all I know is I want to study it more. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to understand what the hell is going on, I sure didn’t. But it’s a thought provoking piece of art that makes me want to decipher its meanings.
The score by Cliff Martinez is the films dark beating heart; ominous synth drones draw us into Bangkok’s hellish underbelly and eerie Eastern instruments give us a feeling that there’s much spirituality at work; perhaps even the supernatural. In a film where dialogue is sparse, the score is relied on heavily for mood and emotion; it’s a triumphant soundtrack to any journey into the abyss – and it makes for great background listening on a dark, rainy day.
Only God Forgives is a flawed movie, but anything that’s so personal to its creator is always going to boast some self-indulgence; that being said, it’s a flawed masterpiece. Any movie that divides people so passionately is worth seeing if you ask me. 10/10
Written & Directed By:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm