Only God Forgives
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) Screenplay:Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling (Gangster Squad), Kristin Scott Thomas (English Patient)
Runtime: 90 min.
by John DeSando
“Time to meet the devil,” Billy (Tom Burke) Only God might be able to figure out the tone and intent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which was booed at Cannes. As for this mere mortal, the film seems of two minds: a bloody revenge story set in an Asian gangster world analogous to a blood-red hell; a slightly campy, figurative tale of oedipal dimensions set in a stylized inferno of murder. Take your choice.
Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug smuggler in Bangkok, at the command of his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), is out to revenge the murder of his brutal brother, Billy (Tom Burke), who had murdered a young prostitute and subsequently been murdered by his own father at the encouragement of the film’s cool bad guy, Police Chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang saying with his deadpan voice, “I love all living things” and singing karaoke in a gay bar makes me think there is a slight bit of levity considering he slices most bad guys with a swift sword . In Tarantino’s stylized revenge epics, Kill Bill (another Billy?) and Django Unchained, the satirical tone is heard and seen; in Only God Forgives that mockery is not easily ascertained as it is accompanied by unstoppable violence with realistic blood.
The slo-mo dramatics and arty shots are indicators of the figurative. Refn composes his shots with the care of a surgeon, everything in the frame is balanced and contributory with a recurring red that lends the right touch of evil. That red saturation complements the blood and enhances the atmosphere of dread a thriller would require. Only by comparing with sophomoric USA slasher films can you begin to see the satire.
As for the deeper figurative side of this thematic equation, mother is right out of tragedies such as Medea and Macbeth. She’s a tyrant chillingly asking her son to revenge her favored son’s death (Billy) and coldly facing down Chang when there are no other options. Mom’s disparaging comments about Julian’s smaller penis than his brothers are helpful in placing the oedipal allusion squarely on the family. So Refn has fun satirizing slasher movies (this film has a surfeit of realistic but also stylized slashing) and having a scary time of that slashing.
The stylish dramatizing is a delight that allows the allegorical interpretations to seep in. Meanwhile, the sound of flowing, gushing blood aids realism while it suggests the flow of ideas, mostly hideous. I find humor amid gore, but then most of what I read about this crazy world confirms the irony is just waiting to come on stage to take a bow. The grandest idea comes from Refn himself, who said that “the original concept…was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God." Chang is the god and the devil Refn and we confront.
John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at WCBE.org. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com