Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling’s second film with Nicolas Winding Refn can be best described as an intimate Opera. Set in the seedy underworld of Bangkok; drug smuggling and kickboxing are the backdrop to this dark tale. There is also a strong Oedipal theme in this mind bending psychological and disturbing film.
Ryan Gosling stars as Julien; brother to Billy – played with sick brilliance by Tom Burke who so closely resembles a young Stacey Keach that it is disturbing – and son of Crystal. Kristin Scott Thomas – Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient – plays Crystal and she is terrifying as the matriarchal drug lord that Julien and Billy work for. Crystal comes across as deadly, psychotic and mad as a march hare. She has an unnatural relationship with Julien and later in the film, it is revealed that she did with brother Billy as well.
At the start of Only God Forgives Julien and Billy are in their kickboxing club overseeing bouts. Billy makes a drug trade and Julien is concentrating on the kickboxing. Later the two brothers are talking to one of their fighters and it is clear that Billy, despite his obvious drug addiction, is the alpha male of this family.
After the fights finish, older brother Billy goes out on the town and at the end of his evening, he rapes and kills a prostitute. Drugged out of his mind, he sits in the room with the body of the 16 year-old sex worker. The Thai police enter the scene and the head of local law enforcement Lieutenant Chang – played with a sombre and chilling air by Vithaya Pansringarm – brings the dead underage prostitute’s father to the crime scene and allows him to beat Billy to death.
Billy’s death sees the return the matriarch of the family business, Crystal. She tells Julien to find his brother’s killer and make him pay. Thus begins a slow, twisted dance between the three main protagonists. Each one seems to be aware of what the other is doing in a sort of languid, and disturbing, telepathy, although in Julien’s case, it seems to be a sort of visionary portent of upcoming events as well.
The pacing and the cinematography of Only God Forgives is operatic and yet oddly intimate; Ryan Gosling as Julien plays his character with such a minimalist approach that he seems to be drugged throughout the film. Cinematographer Larry Smith – Bronson, Eyes Wide Shut keeps the dark film sharp at times and purposely oblique in others and it is this darkness, of the film and the setting, that works so well. Scenes of the main characters feature many Leone-esque shots. Although not using the Italian director’s love of extreme close-ups, the medium close up shots are consist of long pauses where the character’s stare at the camera.
During these moments no one blinks and there is the just under the surface sound of a clock ticking. Normal time as first, and during the scene, speeds up and slows down. It is an oddly effective way of making the set pieces seem surrealistic. The close up shots of the actors’ unblinking visage is unnerving and so reminiscent of the Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1870s.
It is this nod, and homage, to Sergio Leone that makes one think of the spaghetti westerns that made a star of Clint Eastwood. Operatic, slow, and epic in scope, the man with no name films were a love letter to the westerns of John Ford and Japanese Samurai films. Refn’s film does resemble a Leone western in pacing and its opera style of storytelling, but, it is done so on a much smaller scale. Intimacy is the order of the day not sweeping epic grandiosity.
Refn himself has said that he sees the film as a “western” set in the Far East with a modern cowboy. With each set piece centering on the actor’s faces and, in the case of Gosling, minimal dialogue; Julien only has 17 lines in the entire film which goes a long way toward the movie feeling like a Thai western.
The film seems to present Julien as good guy. It is only as the movie goes along that the audience realizes that he is not. While he is not as damaged or mentally abhorrent as his older dead brother, or his mother, he is damaged nonetheless. One scene in the film has Julien hiring a prostitute to play his girlfriend at a dinner with mother Crystal.
This jaded and cynical sex worker sits at one of the most uncomfortable dinners imaginable. With Julien’s mother switching between using rough street language to address the “girlfriend” and talking of her remaining son’s jealousy at his brother’s penis size, the meal is excruciating. After the meal the prostitute asks Julien why he lets her treat him that way. He calmly responds because she is his mother.
Lieutenant Chang as the karaoke singing “Old Testament” law enforcer who seems to literally believe in the old Bible scripture that says, “an eye for an eye” and “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,” is as terrifying as Crystal. Carrying a hidden weapon, that looks like a cross between a samurai sword and a corn knife, he dispenses justice coldly and cruelly. After each sentence has been carried out, he sings what sounds like a soulful Thai ballad.
The film will not be to everyone’s taste. Available now to stream on PSN and on DVD, the film moves at a slow and stuttering pace. The implied mental connection between the three main characters can be confusing and hard to follow. Despite these “problems” the film is brilliant. At Cannes this year, the audience was divided in their opinion about the film. Only God Forgives got a mixture of standing ovation and boos. Ryan Gosling is mesmerizing, as are the other two protagonists, in the operatic and intimate Thai western.
By Michael Smith