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Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” took a critical drubbing when the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. People seriously hated on this movie. During the wide release the stance softened a few degrees, and the film garnered some much-deserved praise. Perhaps “Only God Forgives” isn’t the masterpiece “Drive” is, but it’s still a damn fine motion picture, full of stoic outlaws, sudden eruptions of violence, and gorgeous cinematography. Now out on Blu-ray and DVD, if you’re a fan of Refn’s previous work, you should definitely pick this one up and give the disc a couple plays.
Many viewers wanted Refn’s latest team up with the ever so dreamy Ryan Gosling to be another “Drive.” While the films are definitely relatives, “Only God Forgives” has more in common tonally with the Denmark-born director’s Viking epic “Valhalla Rising.” The two stories couldn’t be farther apart subject wise, unless they blasted off into space—one is set in 1000A.D., and the other takes place in the criminal underworld of modern day Bangkok—but the mood, pace, and feel are quite similar. Both are also damn near silent films, presenting a hallucinatory journey of a central figure into a nightmarish new world of violence.
“Only God Forgives” eschews the usual ways of telling a story, like dialogue. Julian (Gosling), the protagonist, utters only a handful of words throughout the entire movie, and the main villain makes more noise yowling away during his regular visits to a karaoke joint than with actual spoken words. A vast majority of talking is done by the hero’s—in a filmic sense, not in an actual heroic sense—mother, a loud, domineering woman who is fond of using terms like “cum dumpster” in reference to her son’s romantic interest. Instead of focusing on what the characters say to each other, Refn relies on nonverbal elements to create his film. “Only God Forgives” is full of dreamy, sinister lighting; a droning, ominous, synthesizer-heavy score; and brief snippets of intensely gory effects, like a guy getting his ribcage sliced open with a sword.
This is where cries of style over substance reared their ugly heads. In certain respects, these claims may be founded, as the entire movie is a long exercise in the creation of mood, tone, and story through psychological manipulation. True, there is not as much emotional depth or connection as with “Drive,” but if you’ve got to go with any style, goddamn what a style to choose. “Only God Forgives” is gorgeously filmed, meticulously constructed, and crawls deep into you brain, lingering in a way that most movies can only dream of.
At its core, this is a revenge movie, though with a family like this, nothing is ever that simple. When American exile Julian’s brother is murdered for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, the event kicks off a brutal cycle of retribution that involves their overbearing, perhaps incest indulging mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), and a terrifying cop/avenging angel (Vithaya Pansringarm) with shadowy origins and even more obscure motives. The film is a clash of worlds, an existential journey of vengeance, redemption, and self-discovery.
The Blu-ray/DVD release of “Only God Forgives” comes with a nice collection of bonus features to add to your movie-watching experience. Two interviews with Refn dig into the origins and background of the film, how he wanted to use heightened reality, like writing a fairy tale or fantasy story. You also learn that Gosling said this was the strangest script he’s ever read. Refn explains his choice to film in Thailand—the location is inexpensive, has so many unique location opportunities that the production didn’t have to construct any costly sets, and the setting adds another mythological level—and how he used that, along with his habit of shooting in chronological order, to create a domino effect that ripples throughout.
A dozen short, behind-the-scenes features dig into everything from make up to choreography. There’s no coherent narrative thrust to this footage, but it is interesting to see how the director works. You get to see him interact with actors, set designers, and even see him block out scenes. Cliff Martinez, who composed the eerie score—the disc also arrives with a couple of mp3 downloads—dishes on the strange instrumentation he used, which he mixed with ambient sounds, and sonic manipulation. Once he saw the rough cut, which was missing most of the dialogue from the original script, he approached “Only God Forgives” like a silent film, one where the music plays a big, fat, juicy role.
A director’s commentary track is usually the center point of any collection of extras, and this is no exception. Refn shares the track, but the other party serves more as a moderator, and instead of a traditional stream of consciousness ramble, this comes across like a feature-length interview. The interviewer keeps the pace moving, highlighting points and bringing up applicable topics. They delve into the religious and moral side of the story, touching on the metaphysical aspects of the film more than most. For those of you hoping for another “Drive,” Refn says that film is like good cocaine, while “Only God Forgives” is like really strong acid. Viewing the two films like that puts them in perspective, and he’s not wrong on either count.