Movie Review: “Only God Forgives” – Brutal. Bloody. Brilliant. (Part One)

Written by Leo Panasyuk August 17, 2013

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is a film that polarized audiences and critics alike ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. A film which was both lambasted and praised, Refn’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2011 neo-noir film “Drive” is certainly a subject for much discussion and analysis. Why do people hate it? Why do they love it? It’s easy to see how many people may be turned off by the sheer brutality of the violence depicted in the film and the repugnant nature of the film’s characters but beyond all that, there is actually a measure of substance to it. Truth be told, I very much enjoyed this film and before you begin to get the wrong impression of me, allow me to explain my reasoning.

“Time to Meet the Devil”

Ryan Gosling – in his second collaboration with Refn following “Drive” – plays Julian, the owner of a boxing club in Bangkok which is actually a front for a drug-smuggling operation. Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke), the more vocal of the two, helps him run the club as well as help with the drug-smuggling. When Billy is brutally murdered at the behest of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a shadowy and malicious police officer, Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to bury her son as well as exact vengeance upon his killer, using Julian as her primary weapon.

Similar to "Drive," Gosling's character lacks much dialogue but instead chooses to express himself through his actions.

Similar to “Drive,” Gosling’s character lacks much dialogue but instead chooses to express himself through his actions.

The Real ‘Despicable Me’s’

If I could describe the characters of this film in one word it would be this: despicable. The characters are emotionless vessels seeking only to fulfill their own (sometimes twisted) needs and have zero concern for the lives of others. There’s never really a sense of competition of vulgarity and depravity among the characters – and nor should there be – as they are all personally satsified with their actions – as horrid as they may be. Billy, for example, is not a character that I or many others could easily sympathize with in any way, shape or form and I won’t go into detail why simply because I do not wish to spoil anything. The fact that he is murdered had no effect on me whatsoever; this is not to call myself a cruel, cold-hearted monster, but when you have a character such as Billy, it becomes extremely difficult to find any likeable traits within his disgusting persona. Then, there’s Crystal – a regular ice queen.

Despite that most of the characters in this film are very unlikeable, I cannot shy away from the fact that they are portrayed brilliantly by the actors. If there is one performance in this film that deserves praise it is that of Crystal.  Crystal is a cold, damaging, malicious and nihilistic character and Kristin Scott Thomas played her almost to perfection. She is the source of Billy’s violent and sadistic tendencies and, when informed that her son raped and killed a 16-year-old girl shortly before his murder, she shrugs it off and says that “he must’ve had his reasons.” There are some incestuous undertones between her and her sons which are definitely off-putting but seem perectly fit for a film such as dark and crude this.

Brutality masked by beauty.

Brutality masked by beauty.

Red, Red, and More Red.

Red is a prominent colour in this film as it symbolizes both love and hate, acting together in harmony within the film’s framework. Nearly every single frame of this film features the colour red used in either the background, foreground or on any number of inanimate objects which populate the set. There are a couple of times where you’ll see it contrast against something blue and those scenes usually carry more emotional depth as the ‘red-on-blue’ clash is usually a precursor to a violent act in the film.

The cinematography here is brilliant as the camerawork is static in every scene. There is no awkward shaky-cam to be found anywhere, not even in the action sequences. Larry Smith, who provided the cinematography for one of Refn’s previous films, “Bronson,” – as well as Stanley Kubrick’s final feature, “Eyes Wide Shut” – shoots every scene with an almost scalpel-like precision, often opting for slow pans to create maximum tension. Smith’s use of blocking and framing give the right amount of emphasis to each scene and he never misses a beat. It’s a very carefully-crafted and well-shot film and though the camera may linger on certain scenes for a second or two too long, the cinematography is among some the best I’ve seen in a film in recent memory.

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Despite the mixture of hateful characters interspersed among the beautiful setting, there is still much more to discuss in regards to this film so click here to continue to part two of my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.”

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About Leo Panasyuk

A fan of all things film, Leo never really lets himself get tied down to one specific genre. He's always interested in watching new and old films and especially loves the IMAX format. When he's not choosing which movie to watch next, he's studying Film and English at Western University.

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