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Only God Forgives
DirectorNicolas Winding Refn
Release Date(s)2013 (October 22, 2013)
Studio(s)FilmDistrict/Gaumont/Radius-TWC (Anchor Bay)
Okay, so if Dario Argento and Stanley Kubrick were married, in a ceremony presided over by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Nicolas Winding Refn would be the result of that most unholy of unions. Seriously, whatever that guy is on, pass it down here. Only God Forgives is less cinema and more tone poem. Long stretches of silent filmmaking, sincerely odd acting choices and sequences that even upon repeat viewing don’t make much sense, is mostly what this film is about. You’d think that it would make for a terrible movie, but it’s not. It’s just not something anyone needs. I’m glad I saw it, and it just widens my appreciation of Refn as a filmmaker – but I have no idea what to do with it now that I’ve seen it.
If you’re going in looking for a spiritual sequel to Refn’s recent hit Drive, turn around and rethink that because that’s not what this is. At all. But here’s the weird thing. I can actually make Only God Forgives sound pretty awesome. Watch: Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American ex-patriot living in Bangkok Thailand. He runs a local Muay Thai boxing center that is the front for his mother and brother’s international drug ring. One night, his brother Billy (Tom Burke) heads out looking for an underage girl to have sex with. He has a few missteps, but eventually finds a man willing to pimp out his 16 year old daughter. We quickly learn that Billy, along with being a pederast, is also a complete psycho and he beats the young hooker to death. The local police chief, karaoke-loving Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) comes onto the scene and calls for the girl’s father. He tells the man to do what he feels he should do, and the man proceeds to beat Billy to death. Chang then takes the father aside, and because he put his daughter at risk, he cuts the man’s right arm off with a sword he conveniently keeps strapped to his back at all times, and sends him on his way with this hard earned lesson to keep watch over his other daughters. When word gets to Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), she orders Julian to go kill the man responsible for Billy’s murder. Upon hearing the details of how and why – Julian decides to spare the man’s life and move on. Crystal is having none of it and sends her henchmen out to kill everyone who was even remotely associated with Billy’s death – including Chang. Which proves to be a really bad move.
All of that sounds awesome to start a movie with, right? The problem is, it has to be gleaned from the film. It’s all pretty much only take away material. And our main character is Julian, who is so much of cipher that you end up not understanding what makes him tick, and thus, not caring one bit. There is some good character stuff – a lot of actor choices that make the whole show that much creepier. For instance, the relationship between mother and son as played by Thomas and Gosling is so sexual that from the first time you see them on screen together you start to wonder how deep their love is. You won’t have to wonder very long actually. The best scene in the film is a dinner sequence between Gosling, Thomas and a beautiful hooker Julian brings to act as his girlfriend – and everything you’re wondering comes spilling out. In the end, if you’re a fan of Refn, Gosling, Thomas or even weird cinema that serves no real point – Only God Forgives is worth a single viewing. I wouldn’t think you’ll find yourself wanting to dive into this world again.
This Blu-ray is the best way to go if you do chose to check the film out. It’s presented in pretty much a perfect package: 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 with crisp clear colors (and there is a lot of color at play here) with no bleed, hard blacks and excellent skin tones. Audio is presented in an equally impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Cliff Martinez’ soundtrack is presented quite well and the sound design is beautifully textured and immersive.
In terms of special features, most of it is pretty standard but it’s all very well presented. First up we get a nice commentary with writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and Empire film critic Damon Wise. It plays out more like a one-on-one interview than a scene discussion. Refn has the kind of voice that isn’t as engaging as one would like, so some of it is a bit of a chore to listen to – but what he’s saying is very interesting – though don’t come in looking for insight into what the hell is going on. Just more about symbolism for symbolism’s sake. There are two video interviews that actually serve Refn better – his voice is better with video I guess. There’s Talking About Thailand with Empire editor-in-chief Mark Dinning which is set up in a hotel where the two discuss the personality of the location. There’s also Discussing Genre Films with Bruno Icher (author of Conversations with Nicolas Winding Refn and journalist with the French magazine Liberation) where the two men discuss film and Refn’s take of defining genre on his own terms. A selection of twelve featurettes (totaling a runtime of 23:30) go into all sorts of aspects of the filmmaking process in a fly-on-the-wall approach. It’s a bit out of context, but serves an interesting purpose. If the film were more interesting, it would probably be of more value. Cliff Martinez takes up into his approach and his relationship with Refn in The Music of Only God Forgives with Cliff Martinez and the Blu-ray insert has a link and code to allow you to download two song selections from the score.
Only God Forgives is certainly interesting – and it’s not a waste of time in any way shape or form – it’s just not a setup you would expect from the man who gave us the Pusher series, Bronson and Drive. Nicolas Winding Refn is a particular kind of artist, and I very much enjoy his films. This film does not turn me off to him and I look forward to plopping myself into his next world. I just hope it’s a bit more cohesive and full of story and not just an examination of what it’s like to stare out a window and think about your mortality. I can do that on my own.
- Todd Doogan