Editor’s Notes: Only God Forgives is now open in limited release.
For long stretches of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 film Valhalla Rising the characters are convinced they are in Hell. Whether or not anyone in Only God Forgives realizes it, they live in a heart of darkness much blacker; make no mistake, this film is set in the bowels of humanity, and gets much of its power from the pitch-black streak of nihilism that runs through it. It is not surprising at all that Only God Forgives has proven divisive: this is a dark, moody, hyper-stylized and ultra-violent nightmare of a noir film, populated with brutal people and twisted motivations. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for fans who need a moral center to cling to when things get dark. This is a land with no heroes, where everyone is shaded in a very dark gray and what little redemption is offered proves likely to be squandered.
Whether or not anyone in Only God Forgives realizes it, they live in a heart of darkness much blacker; make no mistake, this film is set in the bowels of humanity, and gets much of its power from the pitch-black streak of nihilism that runs through it.
The plot is incredibly straight-forward: Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug smuggler and underground boxing promoter in Thailand whose life is thrown into disarray when his brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders a sixteen-year-old and is then killed by her father, under the eyes of the vengeful vigilante cop Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). When the news reaches Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), she flies to Thailand to persuade him to avenge his brother.
The plot of the film is almost irrelevant however, as Only God Forgives is more about a feeling and an idea. The characters here aren’t fully formed, but then they aren’t supposed to be. These are archetypes playing their parts in a much grander story, with allusions aplenty to Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek tragedy; these are chess pieces thrown in the mud, pawns in Refn’s larger thematic and stylistic game who serve mostly as stand-ins for philosophical and moral ideas. This is very much noir by way of nightmare, powered by dreamlike logic and a drifting pace, a lush, lurid journey through the criminal underworld that operates as much as a horror movie as a revenge thriller. It grants viewers enough silence to ruminate on what they’ve seen, and consciously expects them to do so.
Only God Forgives is absolutely breathtaking to look at, with Refn developing a saturated style that I can only describe as chiaroscuro in color. He drenches his characters in neon lighting and shadows as if staining them with the consequences of their actions at every turn. He develops visual motif, plays with slow-motion staging, and tracks Julian through a brothel like Kubrick follows Danny Torrance through the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Refn often gets painted as a “style over substance” director, but even fervent detractors will have to admit the film looks gorgeous, while fans will find plenty of substance in the spaces the film creates. There are powerful, discomfiting realities at the center of this world, and it can be a grueling, nauseating experience to work through them.
Only God Forgives is absolutely breathtaking to look at, with Refn developing a saturated style that I can only describe as chiaroscuro in color.
This is also by far and away the most violent film from the director, and one of the most relentlessly ruthless releases of 2013. From the start, this is a near constant barrage of brutal beatings, a parade of torture and dismemberment virtually without end, and even for the jaded, this is hard to watch. It is supposed to be a harrowing experience, and the violence is rooted in the film’s deeper message and its city of lost souls. The film also cuts its carnage with a campy sense of humor that adds some much needed levity. Kristin Scott Thomas is darkly hilarious as Julian’s manipulative, foul-mouthed mother, and the Chang’s karaoke habit is great character shading that is a little bit funny (especially as he performs in front of his dead-faced colleagues) until it slowly reveals itself to be heart-wrenching, the only place a man who carries himself as a God can reveal his vulnerabilities. These moments are few and far between, but without them, the film would be so blatantly nihilistic it would be hard to face the day upon leaving the theater.
Only God Forgives is not for everyone, but it is a film I expect will improve its reputation in years to come. It is bleak, violent, and frankly off-putting, but also beautiful, lyrical, and completely engrossing. The film operates on a wavelength that is tough to reach and more than a little unpleasant to occupy, but it does so brilliantly. You may not want to watch, but it is hard to look away. The plot won’t knock your socks off, and characters are paper dolls situated on an ornate set and playing out timeless themes they can’t begin to comprehend, but there’s a transcendence to the proceedings, a dark magic that carries viewers along on a river of dread towards an inescapable fate. Only God Forgives is a pitch-black parable for the ages, so gorgeous and stylistically innovative, so cynical and resonant, it will stick with you long after the credits roll. This is a vital, visceral journey into the darkest recesses of the human soul, and while it is not a pleasant movie going experience, it is absolutely rewarding in the way that great cinema should be, and completely spellbinding from start to finish.
[notification type=”star”]86/100 ~ GREAT. Only God Forgives is a pitch-black parable for the ages, so gorgeous and stylistically innovative, so cynical and resonant, it will stick with you long after the credits roll.[/notification]