After my The Raid 2 review, I was thinking “What are my other favourite films?” The usual’s came up, Psycho, The Thing, Gran Torino, on and on the list went. There are many people who have already argued the merits of those films, you don’t need me to tell you they’re good. But one film on my favourites list stood out, receiving both glowing and panning reviews. The retro review I do for you today is, Only God Forgives.
Only God Forgives stars Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm and Rhatha Phongam and is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The film follows Julian (Gosling), a criminal in the Bangkok underworld, who is urged by his mafia mother (Scott Thomas) to kill a local police lieutenant, Chang, (Pansringarm) in revenge for killing Julian’s brother.
While Psycho may have been the film to get me interested in the idea of studying film at university, Only God Forgives was the film that cemented it. And what a film to inaugurate a degree choice with. I had enjoyed the last Refn/Gosling team-up Drive and while Only God Forgives has many similar elements to its spiritual predecessor, it’s by far the stranger film.
I realise now that I have a penchant for neon-infused streets and buildings (see my love for John Wick and Blade Runner) and Only God Forgives doesn’t let down in this department. Both Gosling and Pansringarm walk on the seedy side of Bangkok, full of drinking-dens and barely legal brothels, and all of it is drenched in vibrant blues and reds. It’s breath-taking, and truly shows what a master cinematographer Larry Smith is.
The music, composed by another Drive alumni Cliff Martinez, fits the neon cinematography well, drawing in several different elements. Martinez uses organs, Thai strings and drums and even synths to create weird hybrid that fits all of the films themes. It’s similar to Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner, with a definite 80s vibe running through it.
Ryan Gosling seems to be channelling his earlier Refn role from Drive, but somehow even more quiet and awkward than before. While Gosling’s lines in Drive added up to around five minutes of film when collected together, his lines in Only God Forgives would be less than a sixty seconds. Julian has only 17 lines in the film, with one of them just screaming like a madman at his favourite prostitute. While some might call it pretentious, I believe it’s a master-class at showing a character through his actions rather than his words. Vithaya Pansringarm turns in a very good performance as Chang, who probably has less lines than Gosling, but manages to have an ethereal presence over the film, since Chang is playing what Refn called the “Angel of Vengeance”. According to sources, before starting a take, Refn would whisper in Pansringarm’s ear, “You are God”. This tactic seems to work dividends, as you can almost see the power building up behind Pansringarm’s eyes as his dishes out punishment or forgiveness all over Bangkok.
The standout role however is an unrecognisable Kristen Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother Crystal, a mafia matriarch who flies to Bangkok to find her son’s killer. Crystal seems to be a mash-up of several different people, equal parts Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace, making for a truly terrifying and antagonising female presence in the film. With her bleach-blonde hair, cigarette always in the corner of her mouth and wearing the tightest and brightest clothes known to man, it’s a far cry from Scott Thomas’ earlier work. And once you add all of that to the expletive ridden dialogue she has, it makes for one hell of a character.
When I first finished Only God Forgives, I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I wasn’t a fan. I watched it again the next day and when the credits came up I had completely switched minds. It’s a film that you have to go away and think about before knowing if you like it, but on the way to finding out whether you like it too, you’ll have a whirlwind of a film.
Score: 9/10 One of the strangest and most compelling things put to film.