‘Only God Forgives’ makes a powerful impression

Nicolas Winding Refn's impactful new film polarizes audiences

Micah Fry/Staff

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Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of “Drive” and “Valhalla Rising,” has produced his most complex and fascinating work yet in his new release “Only God Forgives,” in theaters Aug. 2.

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Thai newcomers Vithaya Pansringarm and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, the drama is a gory noir unlike any in recent memory, channeling predecessors as diverse as Gaspar Noe (“Enter the Void,” 2009), David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence,” 2005) and Richard Kern (“The Evil Cameraman,” 1990). Perhaps the best film to be released thus far this year, the characters and story of “Only God Forgives” are as maddening to process as they are captivating to watch unfold.

The film follows Julian (Gosling), the American owner of a Bangkok boxing club used as a drug distribution center, as he is pushed by his mother Crystal (Thomas) to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the mysterious vigilante policeman “Chang” (Pansringam).

Describing Thomas’ character as a mix of “Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace,” Refn says that because “we are so used to seeing crime and violence as being the work of male characters,” it made it all the more appealing to use a female villain that would “embody absolute evil.”

Complementing Thomas’ overbearing-mother personality, Gosling’s Norman Bates stand-in is a mute, spastically violent creation constantly wrestling with the bizarre, semierotic relationship with his mother. At one point in the movie, Julian brings his favorite prostitute, Mai (Phongam) to dinner with his mother as his date, to which she responds in a predictably profane and explosive fashion.

While the story and narrative arc may be a little more abstract than what fans of “Drive” might expect, the cinematography, soundtrack and use of color are the best of any movie released this year. Through the use of a variety of tracking shots, thoughtful camera angles and a diverse array of graphic metaphors, there is not a single frame in this movie that feels out of place; the visual style is an inventive blend that recalls classics like Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” or even Ridley Scott’s 1980s sci-fi epic, “Blade Runner.”

Consider the opening scenes.

The lighting is dark, with the exception of fluorescent lights illuminating the two padded teenagers beating on one another in the middle. The camera looks at the fight from above and pans out to show the backdrop of the gym — a menacing rose-tinted dragon glaring at the audience that also later serves as the backdrop for the final fight between Chang and Julian.

A powerful metaphor for the distant, ominous god figure that Julian continually wants to fight (perhaps the Laius to Crystal’s Jocasta?), the dragon stares down the fighters as if to let them all know that they are beneath the dragon-god, far below anything they ever hope to defeat. This, among some other subtle cues, lends the whole film a kind of doomed, star-crossed-lovers vibe that swaps Romeo and Juliet for Julian and his mother.

The movie’s whole format is something like this. A complicated amalgam of classical tragic themes and a protagonist lusting for higher truths while on a revenge mission, the movie has, to repeat the overused phrase, polarized audiences.

Received controversially from the beginning, “Only God Forgives” caused many at its Cannes debut to walk out of theater while the film simultaneously earns a five-star review in The Guardian. For a movie as successfully strange and emotionally overpowering as this one, the mixed reviews are unsurprising.

David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” a similarly wild and great movie, also received varied reactions upon its 1999 release. One New Yorker critic described “Fight Club” as being overwhelmed by Fincher’s “sadomasochistic kicks,” and another from The Los Angeles Times characterized the movie as having a “crack-brained” premise. Copy and paste a few words here, insert some manufactured outrage there, and what we have is a half-baked argument that the ultraviolence of “Only God Forgives” overshadows any philosophical or formal excellence the movie has.

Simply put, such reductive thinking ignores the usefulness in this violence as a medium on its own. The body horror involved in “Only God Forgives” is a self-acknowledged nod to Kern — in sync with the Cronenberg-esque themes of violence as a tool of illumination and introspection.

There is no doubt: “Only God Forgives” is an uncomfortable movie to watch. However, it is a deeply rewarding one whose mind-bending nature will leave the viewer with much to ponder, and yes, squirm over.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected].