Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) is a difficult, sometimes painful movie that conveys emotion through unorthodox means of lighting, color, and composition. It is a film built on silences, rather than dialogue. It is also astoundingly beautiful.
Refn, who spent fifteen years directing Danish crime thrillers before rising to international prominence with Drive (2011), followed that film with Only God Forgives, which also starred Ryan Gosling. Drive was stylish and sleek, but most audiences were unprepared for the visual phantasmagoria Refn would subsequently unleash.
Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate living in Bangkok, Thailand. He runs a gym devoted to Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing, with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Billy is a despicable force of evil, a muted psychopath free of any trace of empathy. Rather than a dastardly scowl, his face is a complete blank, his eyes two endless black pools. After a nightmarish walk through the city, Billy stops at an upscale brothel and chillingly requests a 14-year-old girl to rape, before savagely beating the pimp and moving on. He eventually finds a 16-year-old and rapes and murders her, which the film blessedly opts not to show.
The local law enforcement, in the form of Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), arrives to mete out a punishment. Chang leads a squadron of police officers and enforces a brutal and violent form of order. He allows the father of the murdered girl to beat Billy to death, but then chops off one of the man’s hands with a sword as punishment for encouraging her to engage in sex work. Chang’s face is as blank and unmoving as Billy’s during this violence. He is the avenging God of the title, an Old Testament God full of rage and lacking in compassion. Chang has a peculiar way of relaxing after these bouts of retribution: he does karaoke. The only time Chang’s face ever softens is when he sings tender pop ballads to his adoring officers.
Julian, who has been absent for the first part of the film, reemerges in the wake of his brother’s death. He plans to murder the man who killed his brother, but stays his hand when he learns what Billy had done to the man’s daughter. Yet Julian’s toxic family conspires to yank him back into their affairs. Julian’s mother Crystal (played by an almost unrecognizable Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to bury her son and to avenge his death. Dressed in garish pink clothes and stylish shoes, with bleached blond hair, she looks more like a profane reality show housewife than a crime kingpin. The gym that Julian and Billy ran is actually a front for drug smuggling, which she attends to back in the US. Crystal cares not a lick about Billy’s crimes—when confronted with them, she responds “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She seeks only vengeance. Crystal enters into a dance of death with Chang that threatens to carry Julian along.
The backlash against Only God Forgives was swift and unrelenting. Wesley Morris surmised in Grantland that the film’s hacked limbs were evidence of Refn “living out some kind of castration nightmare.” The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called it “pretentious macho nonsense.” Time’s Richard Corliss opined that Gosling was “used as a dour fashion model, not an actor.” The most elegant summation of the negative critical reaction came from New York Magazine’s David Edelstein: “I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”
There was a recurring complaint among many of the film’s reviews that boils down to “This movie isn’t Drive.” And they were quite right! Only God Forgives is not Drive, nor a rehashed remake of Drive, nor a convoluted spiritual sequel to Drive. The earlier film was exciting and fresh, but in no other circumstance would openly pining for a director to make the same film all over again pass muster.
A major knock on Only God Forgives was that it was punishingly dark and morose. It’s not completely wrong—there are many sections of the movie that are uncomfortably dreary, or suffused with over-the-top gore. But it is also a film of great contrasts, including moments of levity. The opening credits are presented in Thai, with English subtitles, a cheeky wink to Quentin Tarantino’s fetishizing of kung fu and grindhouse title sequences. Chang’s karaoke numbers are darkly comic and mildly surreal; put some moody music over them and they would fit comfortably in a David Lynch film. Even the mostly silent Gosling gets a moment of comedy for himself. One of his seventeen lines in the film (!) comes after a long, bloody stretch when Julian blithely says “Wanna fight?” to Chang. The audience I saw the picture with laughed out loud as the movie temporarily switched into an ‘80s-style boxing film, replete with arpeggiated synthesizer runs in the score. Refn doesn’t signal these lighter moments as broadly as someone like Tarantino might, and audiences expecting either the studied cool of Drive or an unrelenting symphony of blood and revenge would be primed to gloss right over them.
Implicit and explicit in many of the film’s pans was the hackneyed belief that the film was all style and no substance, a common criticism of any aesthetically ambitious film. But in the hands of talented filmmakers, style and substance are inseparably entwined. Style becomes a means of telling the story and elucidating its themes. Criticizing Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel as simple exercises in style ignores the way a filmmaker like Anderson uses that style to tell a very specific kind of tale. Others, like Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Jodorowsky (to whom Only God Forgives is dedicated) all make films where style is an essential part of the movie, not something to be dialed down in the interest of taste.
Like them, Refn uses his style to convey what can’t be done through dialogue and acting. Julian is filled with passions and desires, but he is unable to articulate them to those around him. Gosling’s blank-faced performance is essential, and anything more reactive would be a betrayal of the character. In place of Gosling laying out his psychic trauma, Refn uses composition, production design, lighting, and music to show what goes on inside the mostly mute Julian. The cinematographer, Larry Smith, who previously worked with Stanley Kubrick on Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, uses intense colors to bath each scene in primal emotions. Julian is shown in chilly blues and deep reds, signaling his warring impulses to disengage or join in his family’s blood lust. Much of the film calls to mind the neon-soaked resurrection scene in Vertigo. Hitchcock could have had his detective bluntly state his obsession with a dead woman, but instead used ghostly green light to underscore the man’s malignant desires.
Refn extends the lesson to Julian; the film’s lighting telegraphs his emotions without lessening the damaging nature of his impotence. Like Hamlet, he is unable to commit to action in the face of treachery. Hamlet, however, could have lengthy asides with the audience to make clear what he could never speak aloud. The modern film equivalent, voiceover, would have made Julian’s tortured impulses far too literal and bland. Refn’s style conveys the same ideas, but without compromising the character.
Music is crucial to the atmosphere Refn creates. Cliff Martinez, who provided the synthesized score for Drive and regularly works with Steven Soderbergh, crafts a varied score that perfectly matches the visuals. Moody, mysterious scenes are scored with noir-ish strings, whereas scenes of fiery brutality are cooled just enough with icy electronic instruments.
What emerges from these collaborations is a work of surprising beauty. Stills from the film could comfortably reside on the walls of museums next to other works of photography. The sumptuous colors and startling compositions are never less than eye-catching. These images hold their own visual appeal, just as the Sicilian vistas of The Leopard or the sun-dappled fields of Days of Heaven do. Refn finds beauty in the cityscapes that other filmmakers mine for profane ugliness.
As astounding as much of Only God Forgives is, the film is not an unmitigated triumph. Not everything Refn attempts is successful, and the movie’s dream logic can be inaccessible on a first viewing. But the movie also works on a deeply visceral level. It’s difficult to disengage from the film, as much as we might wish to at times. Not every great movie is purely pleasurable, and Only God Forgives has more than its share of wince-inducing moments. But it is impossible to look away from.