Monday, 5 August 2013

Movie Review: Only God Forgives

The truest thing that I can say about ‘Only God Forgives’ is that it will certainly not be for everyone. The litmus test here is if you enjoyed ‘Drive’, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, some viewers took issue with the shortage of character dialogue as well as the more visual approach to storytelling taken by Winding Refn. If you feel that way about ‘Drive’ then I have bad news for you, you’re going to loathe ‘Only God Forgives’. However if you appreciated the storytelling in ‘Drive’ as much as I did then a very different experience awaits you, ‘Only God Forgives’ is surreal and reserved, it drowns you in gorgeous cinematography as you watch a story about characters undeserving of your empathy or admiration, yet with every scene you find yourself drawn further and further into this strange dark world. It is Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece and my favourite film of the year so far.

After his brother is murdered Julian, a drug smuggler, is pressured by his demanding mother into finding his murderer in the perilous streets of Bangkok.

Ryan Gosling brings the ample brooding of his character in ‘Drive’ to the role of Julian, he doesn’t have very many lines in the film as one would expect judging from ‘Drive’ but nevertheless Gosling manages to build a character full of anguish acquired from what was clearly a very twisted upbringing. The fact that Gosling can weave in and out between starring in small art films like this and brainless blockbusters like ‘Gangster Squad’ is remarkable, he’s certainly proved himself to be an actor to be reckoned with over the past number of years so I’m glad he’s returned to work with Winding Refn in this mesmerising movie. Kristin Scott Thomas fills the role of Julian’s venomous mother, a woman so easily detestable that the audience feels immediate sympathy for Julian based on what he had to deal with as a child. The character is caricature for sure but in this surreal world she fits appropriately and Scott Thomas clearly revels in playing such a bitter personality. The final lead character is Lieutenant Chang played brilliantly by Vithaya Pansringarm, he may not have the name status of Gosling or Scott Thomas but he certainly holds his own as the police officer driven by judgement.

Ryan Gosling brings great physicality to the role of Julian.

The reason ‘Only God Forgives’ succeeds as much as it does is all down to Nicolas Winding Refn, along with directing the film he also wrote the story and his stylish manner of filmmaking is unmistakable throughout. The pairing of such incredible cinematography and art direction lends the film its uniquely striking visual style. Winding Refn is a master of combining visual and aural cinema, this is why his films often feature long pauses and drawn out scenes as opposed to copious dialogue, it’s a tactic that some viewers may hate but Winding Refn puts the storytelling in the hands of his actors and trusts that the audience doesn't need dialogue when they can see their emotions on the faces of the actors.

The sheer brilliance of the cinematography in this film is breathtakingly stunning, it just blew me away. Every damn frame is executed to the highest of artistic standards ensuring that it consistently marvels throughout. I’m confident that you could pause this film at any point and you would have yourself an image worthy of framing, 'Only God Forgives' is shot that well. The neon glow that illuminates the sordid streets of Bangkok emphasises the malevolence in certain scenes whilst the contrasting colours used throughout vividly balance the motivations of the characters, juxtaposing these with bright vibrant lights and dank damp streets helps paint the picture of this location outstandingly, certainly better than exposition could.

The use of colour in this film is staggeringly well executed.

This is indubitably going to be one of those films that will divide its audience; some will fall in love with it just as others will abhor it. Those who like their stories logically told will likely find issue with the dreamlike transience of the tale on offer here. There is a certain level of trust that has to be given to Winding Refn from the viewer, you have to trust that the steps he takes to tell this story will provide a satisfying experience, it’s a journey that you really have to give yourself permission to take, and you should because ‘Only God Forgives’ is truly a unique experience.

Just when you begin to settle into the quietly told introspective narrative about the character of Julian you are suddenly reminded of the ultra stylistic violence that Winding Refn is famous for when Julian all of a sudden loses control. It’s yet another stunning move on the directors part as the transition from melancholic contemplation into primal violence is appropriately jarring and reminds us of the dangerous world that these characters inhabit. The squeamish may find the uncompromising look at such brutality off-putting or even sickening but it’s just another facet of this film that challenges what is expected of it, the fact that such silent and tender moments fit perfectly with these violent scenes makes the overall narrative that bit more impressive.

‘Only God Forgives’ is a homage to Bangkok just as much as ‘Drive’ was to Los Angeles, albeit ‘Only God Forgives’ is a much less flattering ode. In particular the film chooses to display the culture separation in a city like Bangkok from the western world, the traditional influence into more modern developments highlights the vast difference in cultures; something that is echoed in the face-off between Julian and Lieutenant Chang via their two very distinct fighting styles towards the conclusion of the film.

Mere moments before the proverbial "shit" hits the fan.

The dark tone of this story is indisputable; in fact almost every character could be considered a villain, proof that nobody survives in this environment without collapsing on whatever morals they once had. The only separation between the criminal underworld and the law in the film are uniforms and a government granted authority, both sides are willing to do whatever they need to do to achieve their goal. That goal, revenge, serves as the thematic undercurrent of the film; Julian seeks vengeance for the murder of his brother whilst Lieutenant Chang eyes his vengeance as a form of justice.

I’m positive that some people will passionately disagree with my view on this film and I respect that. As I said before it’s a very divisive film, for me though it’s just pure cinematic excellence. A masterpiece.

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