Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Valhalla Rising, Bronson, Bleeder, Pusher)
Never has a film's title been so appropriate. In the ultra-violent revenge film, Only God Forgives (opening today), director Nicolas Winding Refn creates an erotic, poetic, near-masterpiece that pulls no punches in creating what will surely be a polarizing film.
Perhaps Refn is an acquired taste, one that must be contemplated and swished around the mouth for longer than normally required. In 2011, critics raved about Refn's last film, Drive, that starred Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman and getaway driver. This was the first Refn movie that I'd experienced (I've since seen a few of his other, earlier films) and it didn't sit well with me. Most notably the uninspired acting (and direction) of Gosling. Sure, it's been explained to me that this guy was just an emotionless killer who goes through life stone-faced. But it came across more like boredom and disinterest in the craft of acting.
In Only God Forgives, Gosling once again stars and once again moves through the film in an emotionless daze. But this time around the block, he wades through a masterful cinematic landscape. From the dream-like sequences, to the music, to the lighting, to the murky reds and blacks of this fascinating Bangkok underworld, Refn creates one of the most visionary films in years. How I was able to overlook the uninspired performances this time around is either a credit to Refn's skills as a story-teller, or perhaps the fact that maybe I finally "get him." Like radiation or fine art, you don't watch Refn, you are exposed to him. I've concluded that his work either feels toxic, or it eventually permeates your soul.
The story is not a complicated one, torn from the pages of classic crime noir. It is the most simple of revenge stories. When Gosling's brother is brutally murdered, his mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) convinces him to seek revenge on the man who did it. It's not like the brother was a good guy...in fact, he was killed in response to having killed someone else. His problem was that he messed with Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), one of the most memorable and brutal screen villains in recent memory.
Not much else happens, though 90 minutes of screen time are filled up with trippy imagery and incredibly odd contrasts. Chang, for example, is not only a brutal killer, he is also a police captain, who, when not slicing people open, performs as a lounge singer in front of other officers in his department. The way Refn juxtaposes these corny ballads with graphic violence makes Chang all the creepier and the movie all the more effective.
If at any point, if any of the characters could just move on and accept a bit of forgiveness into their hearts, things would be better. But if you are looking for characters with redeeming qualities, you've come to the wrong movie.
How Refn makes such ugliness look so beautiful is a special talent. There were literally moments of on-screen violence that made me shield my eyes...not an easy thing to make me do. This is a bizarre movie in a way and one that is clearly not for everybody. Proceed with caution.
If only Refn could infuse his actors with the same fearlessness and emotion that the rest of this film possesses. A great example of this is Kristin Scott Thomas, the only performance in the film that is precisely spot-on. She is cold, hard and calculating, but she is alive. So many other characters in Refn's films - this one included - seem dead on arrival.
Less-than-par acting (and direction of these actors) is a big deal, knocking Only God Forgives out of the upper echelon of 2013 films. But what a brilliant accomplishment otherwise. If Refn films are considered a slow burn, consider Only God Forgives an inferno of gory, poetic splendor.
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