Movie Review: Only God Forgives- Nicholas Winding Refn’s Surrealist Exercise Possesses Impressively Strong Visuals but Lacks a Relevant Narrative Focus

onlygodforgivesThrough the progression of Scandinavian filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic career it seems as though narrative has slowly slipped into the backseat of his highly stylized, horrifically violent, and visually entrancing presentations. Beginning with his narratively contingent Pusher trilogy and the subjective narration heavy Bronson Refn then moved to an art-house focused delivery of mood and visuals with the likes of his Werner Herzog inspired Valhalla Rising and his American cinema debut of Drive. Unfortunately any filmmaker who sets aside narrative for visual experimentation will eventually exhaust his creative dependence and lose his audience’s sympathetic interest which is what occurs in his latest film the deeply haunting yet incredibly callous Only God Forgives. This purely stylistic exercise includes Refn’s signature taste for ultra-violence and monosyllabic protagonists that is at times horrifically entrancing but inevitably loses itself in the filmmaker’s technical coldness and refusal to include any semblance of character development or coherent narrative. There’s nothing likable about the surroundings, characters, or events that take place in Refn’s hellish depiction of a corrupt Bangkok underworld and though it probably isn’t meant to be it certainly makes the violent seizures, the morally empty characters, and the extremely slow paced surrealism hard to swallow. While Refn has confidently tapped into his most artistic based influences, including the surrealist violence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the dreamlike horrors of David Lynch, and the Asian underground styles of Seijun Suzuki, Only God Forgives can’t get by on technical achievement alone leaving behind a visually impressive but undeniably empty film experience that has suffocating atmosphere in an overall pointless narrative. Cinematic artists such as Refn should always be given some benefit of the doubt towards their work because the artistic process alone is a profound statement on vicarious consumption and violent context but it’s just rather unfortunate that he has chosen to abandon relevant narrative in order to enhance his visual mastery and moody execution. Devotees of Refn will find it difficult to defend Only God Forgives as a fully formed cohesive picture because it’s his weakest film to date but paradoxically also showcases his strongest visual attributes suggesting that this is a callous, hellish resting stop on the way to developing better cinematic greatness.

Judging from the lack of narrative depth, the extremely low amount of dialogue, and the fairly basic execution of the Revenge genre template it seems Nicholas Winding Refn wanted as little story resistance as possible to implement a purely visual and surrealistically focused work. If the script ended up being longer than 10 pages it would come as a surprise because from beginning to end dialogue, exposition, and narrative progression are minimally used for an appropriately unnerving yet equally disconnected experience. Only God Forgives indifferently follows protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling), a practically mute drug-smuggler who runs the family business in Bangkok who also has his own Thai boxing training facility, and the backlash of vengeance begets vengeance after his prostitute killing brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered by a corrupt local police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). This simplistic vengeance narrative trades details on plot for blatant psychological complexes including the uncomfortable oedipal suggestions between Julian and his verbally abusive crime lord mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), the Ego complex of Julian’s brother Billy, or the oppression of sexuality that Julian has through a relatively symbolic scene where he is tied down to watch a prostitute pleasure herself. Beyond the use of psychological complexes there is absolutely zero character depth and equally zero development because the film uses the initial setups of the characters to capture their surroundings, their vengeful acts, and the unrelenting moodiness with graceful yet callous cinematic execution that might be visually impressive but leaves you drastically wanting for distinct plot, relevant meaning, or any moral grounding. Billy utters “time to meet the devil” early on in the film and perhaps Only God Forgives is exactly that, a deeply disturbing and surrealist downward spiral into hell which might make Refn’s experimental study a successful artistic aim but far from an enjoyable one due to zero character connection and absolutely no narrative importance. Because of the films utter disconnect from moral familiarity and understood character motivation it’s hard to fully grasp Refn’s latest as anything but an artistic procedural reminiscent of his mid-film work in Valhalla Rising with a slightly pretentious hue to its delivery that undoubtedly showcases his penchant for impressive visuals, moody atmosphere, and shocking violence.

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As a director Nicholas Winding Refn has proven himself an auteur for visual flare, brooding graphic violence, and pure cinematic atmosphere so while leaving behind narrative might have weakened Refn’s latest film in overall impact it has certainly allowed him to deeply focus on his unique cinematic ability to balance surreal dreamlike scenarios with spastic violence creating a nightmarish film that sleekly entices you but ends up being rather unfulfilling in the end. Refn has chosen to collaborate with his Bronson cinematographer Larry Smith for Only God Forgives where they have found a unique ability to utilize as little light as possible in their presentation where neon lights provide a haunting orange or blue glow that ignites the screen in an eerie manner artistically making their heart of darkness a literal heart of darkness. These peculiar lighting techniques mixed with Refn’s ability to set uneasy moods makes his execution of the David Lynch inspired surrealism of the Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. variety all the more creepy with imagery of severed hands or blood steadily pooling from Julian’s hands. The heavy atmosphere lingers throughout Only God Forgives never letting up on its tight grip where frustratingly slow tracking shots down hallways and almost unnecessary uses of slow motion perpetuate a relentless feeling of uneasiness that is continuous from start to end. Just because Refn’s latest might be his weakest in narrative doesn’t mean he’s going to allow you to exit the theater without a lasting impression, mostly through the use of his sporadic and hauntingly graphic violence. The mixture of unnerving mood and the spasms of violence are definitely part of Refn’s signature presentation from Pusher to Drive but they both seem to be highly exaggerated this time around where the mood remains exhaustingly unchanged throughout the film and the violence is selective but brutal. Though all the technical aspects of the film from Refn’s Scandinavian tone to Larry Smith’s piercing cinematography to Cliff Martinez’s unsettling score are all finely developed it just seems that they are contained in a film that is overproduced and lost in the artistry of the procedure. If only Refn had a particular meaning to focus his impressive yet callous technical execution then Only God Forgives wouldn’t have ended up becoming a pretentious art-house masturbatory work where the experimentation of the director took precedent over story, character, and also performance.

Those who thought the monosyllabic performance from Ryan Gosling in Refn’s previous film Drive was limited on expression or verbal eloquence will be even more surprised as to his practically mute turn in Only God Forgives as the submissive yet internally dangerous drug smuggler Julian. Gosling’s talents are definitely multifaceted; however, he has chosen throughout the film to expresses himself solely in blank stares that certainly adds to the uneasiness of Refn’s insistent mood but doesn’t allow much to be expressed beyond apathetic gazes, one outburst of rage, and an unfortunate physical beating that leaves his face even more expressionless. His character’s paralleled twin comes in the form of Vithaya Pansingram’s corrupt police officer Chang who speaks only when it’s needed, gazes menacingly, and often times expresses himself through the art form of bar Karaoke. If the film didn’t have the verbally aggressive presence of Kristen Scott Thomas then the entire movie would have been expressed with minimal stares and the occasional utterance of brief phrasings. Thomas always has a flare on the screen and she is unmistakably the strongest performance aspect of Refn’s new film not only because she portrays such a villainous and vile mother but also because she does it with such confidence and unapologetic vigor. It’s hard to distinguish what’s worse for Julian, the physical beating he gets at the hands of Chang or the constant verbal degradation he receives by his mother. Though these are all incredibly capable actors with strong presence and versatile abilities their performances are all given with the utmost minimalism due to Refn’s demanding surrealist and experimental mood. Minimalism has its place and while it fits here for Refn’s desired outcome it still takes a backseat to the technical experimentation which should have opened the door for more intriguing plot points, character development, and outlets for passionate acting interpretations. Everyone from Ryan Gosling to Kristen Scott Thomas to Vithaya Pansingram all have commanding presences in the midst of a film’s expressionless technical displays but never highlight the screen in truly memorable or relevant ways because performance was secondary to the director’s experimental intentions.

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Artistic cinema has always had its place in the realm of filmmaking but art also has to have either a subjective or objective intention and in the case of Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest experimental work there exists only the artistic expression in the procedure of filmmaking itself and nothing more. Only God Forgives embodies a quite tepid and formulaic version of the vengeance genre that ignores the complexities of narrative and replaces them with an exhaustingly brooding mood, spasms of graphic violence, and unusual visual experimentation. It’s clear that Refn has chosen to passionately pay tribute to his most notable influences, including the surrealist violent imagery of Jodorowsky’s, the Asian underground setting of classic Suzuki, and the nightmarish blend of reality and dreams from Lynch, but paying tribute can only be competently done with that filmmaker’s distinct intention which there doesn’t seem to be any after obvious assessment. Where Refn succeeds in visual mastery he has equally failed in presenting his dark, hellish underworld where we can find some grasp of care or enjoyment in the experience because this dissension into hell is ultimately unfulfilling and unenjoyably disheartening. When compared to his previous work it’s undeniable that Only God Forgives will end up being Refn’s weakest cinematic work in narrative, artistic relevance, and distinct messaging but will be remembered for featuring his more experimental and visually haunting work. This isn’t a failure from the Scandinavian auteur because his focus on the process of filmmaking has resulted in a massively impressive technical work that could have been enhanced by the complexities of character or plot. This dismissal of narrative just might mean that Refn wanted this experimental deviation to refine his particular strengths and pay homage to his influences which is an admirable intention but definitely not a memorable or enjoyable one. Only God Forgives might be worth seeing for Refn fans to ponder his odd surrealist purely technical work but those venturing to see a continuation of Drive or a Ryan Gosling headed Hollywood film should be wary because this is art-house projection at its very core, and not the purely profound or audience accessible kind either.

Grade: C+

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