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Out in Theaters: "Only God Forgives

"Only God Forgives"
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Byron Gibson and Tom Burke
Crime, Drama, Thriller

90 Mins
R

Both grounded in the moment and woozily surreal, Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives is fire and brimstone fantasia. Refn unwinds traditional placeholders of good and evil, prodding the swaying stack of violence's wrath, watching the pieces tumble. Through the unearthing art and philosophy as one, Refn's knack for cinematography, tone, samurai-like violence and a pounding score deliver extraordinarily on all fronts and the result is aggressively cinematic. As an indulgent but arresting masterclass in cinema, Refn has again delivered a towering work. Even when the film is as subtle as a neon sign, it's as sharp as a wakizashi, making Only God Forgives a 21st century creation myth at its most boldly esoteric.

Following up on his masterpiece Drive, Refn has scored another major victory for independent cinema by continuing to blaze his own trail. This bold front upon which Refn stands is the voice of progress - the assimilation of art forms and cultural red herrings - and with Only God Forgives, he proves that he will not abandon his post as a massively-talented outlier in the grand schema of progressive art.


Though some may draw Refn's maturity as a storyteller into play with his ultra-violent indulgences, they mistake exposition for exploitation. Taking this into mind, it's hard to place why exactly this film was booed at its Cannes premiere. The most likely answer is a perceived trivialization of violence. That, however, would be a misguided and shallow interpretation of the work at play. Refn uses violence metaphorically, forcing open our eyes to the slippery slope of an unforgiving nature in sheer Kubrickian fashion. The allusions to Kubrick don't stop with tone as they are visually pounded in with many stylistic decisions, most directly, and most indulgently, by Refn's and cinematographer Larry Smith's excessive creeping hallway shots.

Where the story itself is thin on plot and dialogue, the themes and metaphors taking place underneath are boiling over with tension and purpose. Refn's go-to muse, Ryan Gosling, is game to do a similar song and dance to his unnamed driver character in Drive but there is a different type of silent rage stirring beneath him here.

From his introduction, Julian (Gosling) is a character shrouded in shadow both literally and metaphorically. The first time we see him, his face is sliced in half by a jet black shadow making it difficult for us to get a proper read on him. While we align our bearings on his strong, silent typology, there are little cues to his inner-monologue gleamed for his disturbed glances and the habitual and emblematic cracking of his knuckles. Many moments are spent from Julian's POV as he glances at his arms, flexing and unflexing, studying himself as we study him. It's clear that he is not quite sure what to make of himself and his place in the world and, we too, are trying to put the pieces together.

Plopped down in Bangkok, ex-communicated from the world he grew up in, Julian and his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a Muay Thai boxing ring but their real paycheck comes from peddling cocaine and heroine, a family business which their matriarchal mother runs stateside. Caught between two worlds, Julian is no saint, but then again, he's not quite the flagrant devil his brother and mother are. When Billy is vengefully murdered for raping and killing a 16-year old girl, Julian incurs the wrath of his mother breathing down his neck to get vengeance on the responsible parties.

While this isn't strictly speaking Gosling's finest work, his character is more of a living breathing archetype-in-the-making than a fully fleshed out character. Strong, anti-Hollywood decisions like this make the movie as original as it is, as no one working within the tight restrains of the Hollywood system would dare to allow the perceived main character to be an antihero of this caliber - a man in the making - a puzzle in progress. As we race towards the nail-biting conclusion, Julian is the characterization of rage, pity, love, vengeance and, finally, grace.

Opposite Gosling, and Refn's answer to the God complex, is Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang, the captain of the Bangkok police set on a collision course with Julian's family dealings. Pansringarm is a silent and stoic presence - a sketch of something nightmarish and ethereal - arresting in his dead-eyed delivery and introspective sword-wielding skills. In this landscape occupied by fiends, imps and cretins, Pansringarm's Chang is Satan himself, confusing himself for God. Again, more of a sketch than a character en full, Chang is man as an unstoppable force, violence as escalation whose volleying sense of justice propels the narrative along to its ultimate conclusion.

 
Caught between these two largely restrained male leads is a very fine performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal, Julian's hardheaded mother. Plopped somewhere in the midst of an oedipal tidal wave, armed with the curtness of a sailor, Thomas is electric. From her commanding physical stance to her venomous speeches, Thomas probably gets in the most words in the film and doesn't waste a single breathe. She has the incredible ability to be terrifying, pitiful and darkly humorous in any given scene - a heartless vixen existing between the lines of sex and violence. Thomas's performance here is easily mesmerizing and utterly captivating.

The Bangkok setting in which the tale unwinds becomes a vibrant character in itself and Refn acknowledges the Thai culture with respect, gratitude, and cautious reverence. As an almost otherworldly experience, we see the strange, beautiful fantasy of Thailand with all its underbelly sin and strange grandeur. It's a dark symbolic land whose allure lay somewhere between the prostitution and ceaseless neon lights. Streets lined with saggy-nippled dogs and food carts put us right in the thick of the twisted limbo of morality Refn tries to simulate and there is no better setting than the pure strangeness of Thailand.


The stunning camera work, bright uses of color and beautifully filmed sequences make each scene look like screen-grabs for a movie poster, and when accentuated by Cliff Martinez's pulsing track work, it all adds up to a moving piece of tone-art. Between the screeching strings, big, devilish organs and a thumpy electronica twine, Martinez's score works as an auditory crescendo informing the building sense of dread.

A great film is one that you can look back upon and continue to gleam more from upon - particularly in retrospect. It sets out a series of clues that you can't assemble until the film has come full circle but, once it does, you see each piece as a meaningful and necessary contribution to the work as a whole. Only God Forgives is full of these little Easter eggs - leaving breadcrumbs from the opening shot to the big, thoughtful finale - bringing its own view of philosophy and mythology to the table to be dissected slowly and, in this case, gruesomely.

A

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