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July 20, 2013

Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

Review By: Rob Sibley

I'm going to say this upfront, you are either going to love or hate this film. Nicolas Winding Refn returns with his latest film “Only God Forgives”. Refn made his first film back in 1996, the excellent “Pusher”. But the film that put him on a lot of peoples maps was 2011's “Drive”. Drive quickly has become a cult hit and Ryan Gosling's stoic character of “Driver” surely has become one of the more memorable anti-heros of the last decade. Drive could have been your typical mainstream crime & fast cars flick (Fast and Furious I'm looking at you.) But thanks to to Refn's excellent direction the film became it's own beast. With Only God Forgives Refn tackles a genre that's been done to death, the revenge film and once again has put his own unique spin on it.

Like I said earlier, you're either going to love or hate this film. I also can't express enough, don't go in expecting Drive 2. The only connection is Refn & Gosling, the similarities end there. To me if anything I felt almost like I was watching a spiritual sequel to the Refn film “Fear X”. Fear X was made back in 2003 & was written by none other then the great Hubert Selby Jr. It was sadly dumped DTV in the US. It pretty much bombed world wide and nearly made Refn's production company go bankrupt. To save himself Refn made Pusher 2 & 3 for the sole purpose to pull his production company out of debt. Fear X featured an oscar worthy performance from John Tuturro.

His character interestingly enough was kind of a sign of things to come. Stoic and silent for the most part, incredibly introverted and prone to sudden outbursts of violence. Refn would carry on this sort of monolith style characters in the shape of Mads Mikkelson as One Eye in “Valhalla Rising”, Driver in Drive and now Julian in Only God Forgives. There are even more similarities between Fear X & OGF that I will point out later.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug runner in Thailand who runs a boxing gym as a cover. One hot Thai night Julian's brother Billy (Tom Burke) decides to rape and beat to death a 16 year old girl. The police immediately show up, as well as the mysterious Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang allows the girls father to beat Billy to death. Then for allowing his daughter to prostitute herself Chang cuts the fathers arm off. Chang is the walking definition of karma, he dishes out justice as he see's fit and walks around with a god like aura.

Upon of hearing of Billy's death, Julian's mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) fly's to Thailand. She is taken aback by the fact that Julian really has no desire to seek vengeance for his brothers death so she takes matters into her own hands. Which leads to one bloody event after the other that asks the question, does only god forgive?

Refn has already made it clear that this is a love it or hate it film. Their is no in-between what-so-ever. Unlike Drive which was Refn's most mainstream film, OGF is anything but mainstream. The only thing "Hollywood" about this film is Ryan Gosling. An actor I admire because he's not afraid to do smaller films. Gosling's character is a tragic one, unlike Drive where he was cool as ice. In OGF his character is pretty much a loser with a major Oedipus complex. As Refn has stated Julian is a character that is still very much chained to his mothers womb. Crystal at almost every turn belittles Julian, citing that he'll always be jealous of his brother. She even has some choice words about it when Julian has dinner with his mother, accompanied by his escort girlfriend."What with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock. Julian's was never small... but Billy's was enormous... how can you compete with that?" 

Read into that line of dialog as much as you want. Critics have been citing that this film is style over substance. Something that I disagree with whole-heartily. Sure the film is bathed in style, is just oozes style from frame one. This is one of those rare films, where you could pause it and frame any given shot. But underneath the sleek cinematography a lot is going on. Some of it is very subtle and some of it isn't. It may be a revenge film but at the end of the day it's a story about the relationship between a mother and her son. 

Speaking of Julian's mother, Kristen Scott Thomas is a revelation in the film. She truly shines in every sequence she's in. She's given the most memorable lines of all the characters, calling Julian's gal a "Cum Dumpster" is just one of them. Kristen's character of Crystal is a force to be reckoned with. A character that would make most tough guys piss themselves in fear. 

Vithaya Pansringarm as the mysterious Chang is equally impressive. Never once in the film does his character lose his cool. Even when he's dishing out the pain he remains stone faced. Refn said the film is about a man who wants to fight god. In the marketing materials to the flick they referred to Chang as "The Angel of Vengeance". In the film that is never mentioned but it's very very clear that he represents god. Julian is a character looking for redemption and Chang just might be the guy to give it to him. 

I can't talk about the film without mentioning Yayaying Rhatha Phongam. She plays Mai, an escort who Julian is very fond of. Her performance remains classy throughout the film, her character helps humanize Julian. She also seems to be the only person who see's that Julian is living under his mother's thumb. She calls him out on that... with interesting results. Yayaying is actually a very famous pop star in Thailand, you'd never guess it. It feels like she's been acting since she was a child. She's a natural talent and is bound to have a big career.

Larry Smith, the films cinematographer deserves special mention as well. He's worked with Refn three times before, on Bronson, Fear X and Refn's episode of Miss Marple. Larry Smith also has worked with Kubrick in the past on Barry Lyndon, The Shining & Eyes Wide Shut. Where Bronson very much had a Kubrick vibe to it, OGF feels more akin to a David Lynch film. It's certainly Refn's most surreal film to date. Watching it I was instantly reminded of Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 

Now earlier I mentioned how the film is more akin to Fear X then Drive. This is something nobody seems to be mentioning. Which is very puzzling to me since everything from the cinematography to the red surreal lighting and even the nightmare sequences bring FX to mind. Refn is in no way copying himself, but their are certainly connections between the two. That's what's so refreshing about Refn as a filmmaker. He never makes the same film twice. He's a filmmaker who's constantly reinventing himself and to me is one of the finest directors currently working. 

Only God Forgives may not be Refn's best work, but that's not a bad thing when each film he makes are mini masterpieces. Overall I had a blast with OGF it was one of the most unique and best films of the year. This flick comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. The film was released theatrically July 19th, but don't freat if it's not playing at a cinema near you. The film is currently available through Itunes and video on demand. Do yourself a favor and seek this film out.

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